Parul Sehgal

  • Click Bait


    She’d approach you at Coney Island or Washington Square Park or on your way to work. “You look terrific,” she’d say—that was her phrase. You’d take her home; most people seemed to. You might take off your clothes, and sometimes she’d take off hers, too. She’d stalk off with her trophy: a photograph of you edged in darkness—as if seen through a keyhole—watching her warily. In the words of one biographer, you’d just been Arbused.

    Almost from the beginning, Diane Arbus’s photographs were contentious for their blunt, some said cruel, depictions of her beloved “freaks”:

  • Home Is Where the Art Is

    Transit, Rachel Cusk's cerebral and very charismatic new novel, begins like so many of the best stories: with an act of foolishness. Our narrator, fragile, aptly named Faye, goes into debt to buy a crumbling flat. She sends her children to live with their father and embarks on an expensive renovation, infuriating her neighbors, and living for a lonely season in a sort of mausoleum. "Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons," she says, "the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free

  • Mothers of Invention

    AS AN INSTITUTION, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,”

  • Sister Outsider

    Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap. It’s a sequel of sorts to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), sharing its subtitle (An American Lyric) and ambidextrous approach: Both books combine poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, words and images. But where Lonely was jangly and capacious, an effort to pin down the mood of a particular moment—the paranoia of post-9/11 America and the racial targeting of black and brown men in those years—Citizen’s project is more oblique, more mysterious.

  • Laughter in the Dark

    The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

    Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having

  • Less Is Moore

    Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate

  • Stories in a Classical Mode

    When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own

  • Where the Mild Things Are

    Pity; they used to be such nice girls. Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake grew up together in a grim housing estate in North West London. They acquired university degrees, good jobs, political convictions, pretty husbands. And they’re miserable. Now in their mid-thirties, they’re pickling in bile and coming apart. Leah has become fixated on a local woman who bilked her out of thirty pounds. She’s secretly taking birth-control pills, scuttling her husband’s plans to start a family. Keisha, who’s gotten posh and changed her name to Natalie, is spending a bit too much time on a website catering to

  • The Body Electric

    Readers are not created equal. Frances Ferguson observed, rather dolorously, that the “reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows,” but let’s be frank: There are gifted—or maybe just thirstier—readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension. There are varsity readers, and then there is Maureen N. McLane, a poet, professor, and prizewinning critic. To read McLane is to be reminded that the brain may be an organ, but the mind is a muscle. Hers is a roving, amphibious intelligence; she’s at home in the essay and the

  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    Isaiah Berlin split intellectuals into two groups: foxes, who know a great deal about many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. But I wonder if there isn’t a third type, too, mysterious and misunderstood: the individual who knows a great deal about one thing—and that thing is herself. Narcissism has nothing to do with it. This is a specialty that usually signals deprivation: In the absence of other people, the self was all there was to study.

    Such is the lot and genius of Jeanette Winterson. Her novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince

  • culture September 19, 2011

    Noon by Aatish Taseer

    Rehan Tabassum is in a bad way. Although, strictly speaking, the trouble isn’t of his making. He’s just got that kind of family—prone to falling in love with the servants, scheming against one another, messing with the wrong fundamentalist and leaving sensitive home videos lying about. The Tabassums, owners of a telecommunications empire in Pakistan, are a brutal, blundering clan grown crooked and strange after years of bending to the will of their autocratic patriarch.

  • The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India

    India’s economic ascent has launched a flurry of books, most of them touting neoliberalism’s power to not only propel the country out of poverty but to chase away its unsightly caste and class divisions, its nasty penchant for pogroms and female feticide. Siddhartha Deb’s very fine The Beautiful and the Damned tells a darker story, focusing on the boom’s seamy side: the scoundrels and profiteers, and the millions of farmers and migrant workers crushed beneath the juggernaut of “progress.” “The modernity of India,” he writes drily, is “an ambiguous phenomenon.” His point is that even as India

  • Beautiful Monsters

    Take an apartment. Trash it thoroughly. Strip. Smear yourself with blood, bind your wrists, and bend over a table. Wait for your friends to discover your “corpse.”

    Too much?

    Take a city sidewalk. Take a bucket of “blood.” Splatter. Hide. Look at people looking at the “blood.”

    How much is too much?

    This is the horror art of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American performance artist; the scenarios are taken from 1973’s Rape Scene and People Looking at Blood, Moffitt. Mendieta is one of the battalion of painters, filmmakers, and novelists analyzed in The Art of Cruelty, an earnest but scattershot

  • culture April 12, 2011

    Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

    Janet Malcolm often uses the very discipline she describes to skewer its practitioners: In The Silent Woman, she writes a biography of biographers; in Psychoanalysis, she psychoanalyzes a psychoanalyst. Now, in her murder-trial report Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she launches a countersuit against a corrupt judge, a malicious attorney, and the “hollowness of the presumption of innocence.”

    Janet Malcolm is to malice what Wordsworth was to daffodils. In nine previous books, she’s so thoroughly, so indelibly investigated a certain breed of malice—the kind that festers in the writer-subject relationship—that it ought to bear her name. Malice is journalism’s “animating impulse,” she writes as she turns reportage inside out to show us its seams (and seaminess) with trenchant ceremony. Biography and journalism are rotten with exploitation, venom, voyeurism; we’ve just averted our eyes. Like the child who cries that the emperor has no clothes, she announces truths hidden in plain sight.

  • culture December 21, 2010

    The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield

    The girl in the photograph wears her black hair tucked behind her ears. Her part is slightly crooked, and there is a small mole low on her throat, right above the top button of her blouse. She might be anywhere between five and ten years old. She’s been posed against a wall or a screen. Stripped of its context, this is a lovely but unremarkable portrait of a small, serious looking girl, an image that's easy to look at and easy to forget.

    But let’s restore the context and look again. Pol Pot liked to have his prisoners photographed. Like the fourteen thousand or so others imprisoned at Tuol

  • culture November 01, 2010

    Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

    The scribes of Cleopatra's time were awestruck by her wit and money, but never by her face. So what's behind the conspiracy to recast this witty ruler as an insatiable sexual savant?

    They called her the Queen of Kings. She built a kingdom into a mighty empire that stretched down the shimmering eastern coastline of the Mediterranean. She married—and murdered—her two younger brothers. She bankrolled Cesar and Antony and bore them both sons. She was worshipped as a goddess in her lifetime. She was lithe and darkhaired. She was not beautiful.

    The scribes of her time were awestruck by her wit and money, never by her face—she was no Olympias, no Arsinoe II. The coin portraits she issued, our most accurate depictions of her, reveal a beaky little thing with a wide mouth and avid

  • culture September 20, 2010

    How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior by Laura Kipnis

    Everything you think you know about James Frey is wrong. You’re wrong about Eliot Spitzer, too, and Linda Tripp, and any number of those nutty and libidinous rogues in our public pillories. According to Laura Kipnis’s coruscating new study of scandal, what we talk about when we talk about transgression is in a terrible muddle. We can’t explain why one public figure’s infidelities outrage us while another’s are ignored; why some can rehabilitate their reputations while others are permanent pariahs. “We lack any real theory of scandal,” writes Kipnis, whose taxonomy of misbehavior leads us “like

  • culture September 01, 2010

    Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

    David Abram, ecologist and author of Spell of the Sensuous (1996), is the hierophant of a group best described as environmental ecstatics—nature writers with a primary interest not in studying or saving the earth, but in reveling in its metaphysical powers. In his new book, Becoming Animal, Abram is on a particularly complicated, mystical, and almost messianic mission: He wants to reclaim “creatureness”—our animal senses and subjectivity—in a society in thrall to the “cult of the expertise” and the tyranny of machines. He hopes to reintroduce us to a pungent, unpredictable world of “resplendent

  • culture October 15, 2009

    Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin

    For two years, Rich Benjamin insinuated himself in some of the fastest-growing communities in America: “Whitopias,” places in Georgia, Idaho, Utah—and even parts of Manhattan's Upper East Side—where white people are currently migrating in massive numbers. Searching for what these "refugees of diversity" are running from and towards, he attended churches and poker games, posed as a prospective house buyer, hosted potlucks, and even participated in a three-day retreat with white separatists. It’s a topical and conceptually sensitive project brimming with promise, especially given Benjamin’s