Eric Banks

  • Prairie Swooner

    WILLA CATHER WAS A MASTER OF BEGINNINGS. O Pioneers! (1913), her first novel after the false start of Alexander’s Bridge (1912), opens on a provocatively odd note: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.” Soon the attention shifts to the “cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky . . . set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for

  • Sympathy for the Devils

    For all his love of Dante, I don’t think Nick Tosches was much of a Boccaccio man. Still, he might have admired the saga that begins The Decameron. It is the story of one Ser Cepparello da Prato, un pessimo uomo, a dandy gentleman who wets his beak in every vice—blasphemy, forgery, booze, sex, crooked dice, marked cards, you name it. But nothing gives him a bigger kick than stirring up bad feelings, for, according to our storyteller, “the greater the evils he saw . . . the greater his happiness.” Dispatched to Burgundy to collect on the Boss’s loans, he falls deathly ill; his hosts worry that

  • The Grand Reckoning

    Readers in the distant future will surely note that a good number of books published in the late 2010s registered how dramatically the political landscape shifted while they were being written. Philosopher Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans is a case in point. The director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Neiman decided to take a fellowship in Mississippi midway through Obama’s second term, not long after the murder of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston. In the shooting’s wake, Republican governors of South Carolina and Alabama got rid of the Confederate battle flags that

  • Hybrid Maintenance

    In English, concision may generally be the best policy, but in the case of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas’s new (or newly translated) metanovel, one might opt for the more laborious UK title—Mac and His Problem—over New Directions’ American rendering, Mac’s Problem. The latter really only goes in one direction, and it is clear early on that Mac indeed has a problem. Though we first meet him in the guise of a budding writer—a beginner, he calls himself, diligently apprenticing in his handsome Barcelona study—it quickly becomes apparent that our hero, a voracious reader who was a lawyer (or

  • An Afterlife to Remember

    As Denis Diderot’s lengthy and preposterously productive run approached its end in 1784, the question of his posterity loomed in an even more concrete way than usual. In the months before he expired, aged seventy, over a bowl of stewed cherries, he relocated from the conservative parish of Saint-Sulpice to the more renegade-hospitable precinct around Église Saint-Roch, on the other side of the Seine. The move offered a way for Diderot the atheist to avoid the fate of Voltaire the deist, whose corpse had had to be disguised as a still-living being and hustled out of Paris sitting upright in a

  • The Moviegoers

    In his 1929 essay “Will Talkies Abolish the Theater?” Luigi Pirandello offered a provocative reading of cinema (and defense of the stage) when the younger medium was at a pivotal moment. “The greatest success to which film can aspire, one moving it even farther along the road toward theater, will be to become theater’s photographic and mechanical copy, and a bad one at that. Like all copies, it must arouse a desire for the original.” What stoked Pirandello’s criticism of film was the introduction of sound—he wrote the essay after seeing The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, and not long after

  • Sea Change

    THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT MOMENTS in the afterlife of Joseph Conrad took place in the span of a couple of years in the 1970s, just over a half century after the death of the novelist in a wooded village in Kent. The first was Chinua Achebe’s attack on the author and his best-known work of fiction, Heart of Darkness, as an irredeemable bit of dehumanizing tripe. Calling Conrad a “thorough-going racist,” he denounced the novella and its vision. “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” Two years after

  • syllabi November 20, 2017

    The Manson Family

    [Editor's note: This article originally appeared in 2009.] The Manson Family has been plumbed and probed inside out and upside down—there’s Joan Didion’s The White Album, Jerzy Kosinski’s Blind Date (Kosinski narrowly missed becoming a sixth victim at the Tate-Polanski residence), and more recently Zachary Lazar’s Bobby Beausoleil–driven Sway. These books compliment Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s best-selling classic of true crime. You’ve no doubt read these, but here are a few other titles that any Manson syllabus should contain.

    Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum

  • Devil in the Details

    Early in Ill Will, Dan Chaon's most recent work of acutely turned literary fiction in crime-fiction drag, Dustin and his wife, Jill, announce to each other that they have some big news they need to share. Jill goes first, informing Dustin she has a tumor the size of a grapefruit, which the reader already anticipates will kill her soon. (In the unremittingly dark atmosphere of Ill Will, it's not exactly a shocker to discover mortality is just around the corner for almost every character, whether they seem to deserve it or not.) Hearing this, Dustin decides to keep to himself his own bit of

  • All the Rage

    It didn't take long following the first utterance of those dreadful four words almost no one expected to hear—president-elect Donald Trump—for political shock to give way to an onslaught of analyses of how an event so recently unimaginable had been hiding in plain sight. Like the banking crisis in 2008 and the terrorist attacks of 2001, the surprise was amplified by the sense that all our certainties—political, economic, cultural—seemed to melt before our eyes. While some commentators focused on the short term and the days, weeks, and months leading up to the election, most played the long

  • Land of the Nod

    In his diary, the teenaged Thomas De Quincey once speculated about his persona. “What shall be my character?” he wrote. “Wild—impetuous—splendidly sublime? Dignified—melancholy—gloomily sublime? Or shrouded in mystery—supernatural—like the ‘ancient mariner’—awfully sublime.” De Quincey’s reputation would turn on option number three, although he never gave up on the other alternatives. What is striking about his adolescent query is its suggestion that the author already had a strong sense of where his future might lead. In the same diary, he ingenuously presaged the dreamy, inward focus on the

  • Pro and Con

    THE CONFIDENCE MAN has stalked American writing for centuries. Even before the Civil War, he’d already found his great literary champion in Herman Melville, who set his strange shape-shifting trickster on a riverboat named Fidèle and sent him drifting down the Mississippi in one of the most vexatious tributes ever composed to this all-American criminal. Nearly a hundred years later, Melville’s creation found its stranger-than-fiction update in The Big Con (1940), a book in retrospect only marginally less likely than its novelistic forebear.

    The author of The Big Con wasn’t a man of letters

  • The Program Era

    I can’t remember the last time I used an electric typewriter. It most likely would have been in the course of typing out an address on an envelope—but then again, I can’t readily call to mind the last time I did that with anything other than that old-fashioned technology, the ballpoint pen, which itself is not really all that old school. The mass commercial distribution of the ballpoint pen in the United States dates only to about 1945, which means its triumphal appearance in the writing market occurred just under twenty years before that of the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, IBM’s radically

  • Public Anomie

    For some time I’ve wondered how Michel Houellebecq’s Submission would play when it arrived here in the States, nearly a year removed from its tumultuous publication in France. In that country, of course, it appeared the same morning that terrorists slaughtered much of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, including one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The book had already enjoyed—if that is the right word, and with Houellebecq it probably is—a prepublication patina of infamy. The novel dominated the evening-TV pundit fests, sparking debates about multiculturalism, Islamophobia, and the politics

  • Pipe Dreams

    Twenty-five years ago, in a review of Abdelrahman Munif’s ambitious “petronovels,” Amitav Ghosh asked why fiction had proved so mute when it came to the momentous story of Middle Eastern oil. Other globally disruptive enterprises—Ghosh’s preferred example is the spice trade—didn’t lack for a robust literary response, like the epic Portuguese poetry that sprang up alongside the discovery of a sea route to India. But the story of fossil fuels had not found its place in serious fiction, despite its tantalizing offerings to would-be chroniclers—its “Livingstonian beginnings” in the Arabian sands,

  • Future Imperfect

    Rodney Dangerfield once had a joke that began, “I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’” The bartender’s response: “God beat me to it.” In Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, there are plenty of people who have been made into the walking dead without their knowing it. As for heavenly beings, the best we get here is Joshua Levin, a schmucky wannabe writer who is not doing so well in his master-of-the-universe role: Throughout the novel, he struggles to pen a no-future apocalyptic screenplay.

    The funny thing about this striving filmmaker’s project is that he’s incapable

  • Swann Songs

    In 1919, C. K. Scott Moncrieff first approached an English publisher with a proposal to translate Du côté de chez Swann, the novel that Marcel Proust had finally been able to see published that same year to a favorable reception in France more than a half decade after he had been forced to pay for a private printing. Scott Moncrieff’s idea went nowhere. The British house he contacted, Constable & Co., wrote back that they had never heard of the author (and bafflingly referred to him as “Prevost”). The lack of commercial interest didn’t, however, deter Scott Moncrieff. Even though he was in the

  • Absolutely Infamous

    HAS THERE EVER BEEN A FIGURE whose name so signals in equal parts cottage industry and relative neglect, at least in the English-speaking world, as Bertolt Brecht? Nearly six decades after his death, he continues to cast a long shadow across the history of the theater, but many audiences (and readers) think of him as a sententious Cold War relic—both politically and aesthetically. Certainly, new productions of Brecht’s classics show no sign of abating—and not just the warhorse Threepenny Opera, which established itself as a certified money machine and perennial seat filler from the moment the

  • Jokes for the Ages

    Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Writing about Plautus, the 200 BC Roman creator of the most extensive extant collection of early Latin comedies, the classicist Gilbert Norwood chalked up a good bit of the author’s subsequent renown to the fact that he was a rare comic bird in a culture that put its stock in the battlefield and the courtroom and in “giving off gravitas.” “People . . . beam delightedly whenever Plautus is mentioned, simply because, in an age otherwise unfamiliar to us, he writes of things familiar to us indeed. ‘Fancy a man in a toga talking about bacon! How thrillingly

  • Special Effects

    Few authors remain at once as familiar and excitingly original over the course of a career as Muriel Spark. From book to book, an odd familiarity combines with a scrappy sense of a new beginning. For the neophyte, there’s no bad place to jump in; for the veteran, there’s always something new to explore. In one of the interviews reprinted in Hidden Possibilities, an excellent new collection of critical responses to the Scottish-born author’s work, Spark praises Edna O’Brien for the freshness of her writing; it’s a compliment that could be paid to Spark at any point in her career. All of Spark’s