Sasha Frere-Jones

  • interviews November 24, 2020

    In Search of Soul

    Emily J. Lordi’s new book, The Meaning of Soul, is her third, and it continues her larger project of examining how the work of Black vocalists embodies Black music in both historical and practical forms. She’s written extensively on Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin, who appear here alongside Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Minnie Ripperton, and a half dozen other artists. Over the summer, I talked about the book several times with Lordi, who works as a freelance writer and an English professor at Vanderbilt University. Those conversations have been combined, condensed, and edited for clarity.

  • American History XYZ

    YOU MAY NOT HAVE BEEN thinking about American history on September 17, not in the longitudinal sense. Maybe you were taking a limited view of the historical arc, something like, “What the fuck?” That morning, as he often does, Trump connected the immediate and the long-view senses of history by announcing the “1776 Commission,” a body conjured from thin air and allegedly dedicated to the case of “patriotic education.” The proximate insult that Trump and his speechwriters were responding to was the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a collection of essays and study resources with a longer view that

  • Boroughed Time

    GIVEN TIME, every discussion of New York in the 1970s becomes a discussion of the South Bronx. When documentary filmmakers need to indicate the decade of New York’s municipal failure, the rubbled lots of the South Bronx mark the moment and do the failing. When overpaid Netflix directors need to gloss the Black experience in New York in the 1970s, an abandoned tenement is cast as the silent buddy. The South Bronx is a real place dogged by the surreal, somehow always most itself when on fire. But New York in the ’70s was not a burning dumpster, and the South Bronx was not a crater full of dancers

  • interviews June 02, 2020

    Room to Improv

    Wayne Koestenbaum performs a surgery of surfaces. He finds the inside of a thing by drawing together the outsides of that thing, pinching the body until the folds present a name. His new book, Figure It Out, is a collection of essays and reviews written at some point in the twenty-first century, mostly the last ten years. The thread of the book is “Wayne thought it” and this glistens like a shell.

    These pieces are self-assignments, opportunities to create and solve a problem at the same time. Some tell you this right up front. From a 2015 piece called “Twelve Assignments,” here is the eleventh

  • God’s Neon

    PEOPLE LOVE TALKING ABOUT DENIS JOHNSON, but they do not love talking about his fifth novel, Already Dead. Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review tagged the book in August 1997, and it has yet to be untagged. She wrote that Already Dead was “a virtually unreadable book that manages to be simultaneously pretentious, sentimental, bubble-headed and gratuitously violent.” Kakutani got flagrant with the kicker, calling Already Dead an “inept, repugnant novel.” David Gates was more generous in the Sunday Book Review, though not enough to overwrite Kakutani. Few writers fell for the book when it

  • Los Angeles Is Burning

    SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, written by Mike Davis in collaboration with historian Jon Wiener, is a kind of sequel to City of Quartz, the cultural analysis of Los Angeles Davis published in 1990. In the beginning of CoQ, Davis described the focus of that book as “the history of culture produced about Los Angeles.” And that is true for roughly two hundred pages of CoQ, as Davis reviews the work of California historians like Carey McWilliams (he approves) and “the European reconceptualization of the United States” carried out by Los Angeles transplants like Theodor Adorno (he’s torn). Davis also turns

  • culture March 17, 2020

    Electric Irish DMT Test

    Rob Doyle is a twentieth-century boy. His characters are monologous young men who get high and chase literary grouches with an eye out for that high-modernist whale, the epiphany. Many of Doyle’s contemporaries—literary men in their late thirties—confine themselves to the cramped emotional tone afforded to those invested in the internet’s panoramic view and its plausibly crushing Bad News. But Doyle looks back: His drugs and bands and writers are pre-9/11 specimens, across all of his books. The characters in his 2014 debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, are teen grads in Dublin off their faces,

  • syllabi December 06, 2019

    Variety and Vitality in Pop Criticism

    In a review of Ian Penman’s excellent essay collection It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, I talk about the chaotic, bossless froth of pop-music criticism. I conclude that the practice is healthy. In support, I offer this bowl of noodles, an undisciplined syllabus designed to index the variety and vitality of critical writing tethered to pop. I didn’t look for anything—they came to mind, unbidden. First, some pieces that have been on my counter for a year or so, and, after that, older essays that still guide me.

  • interviews December 03, 2019

    Sasha Frere-Jones talks with poet Ariana Reines

    Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book was published in June of 2019 and longlisted for the National Book Award in September. It’s almost four hundred pages long, generous and radiant and brutal and patient and punishingly good. It pivots to truth, as Alice Notley once defined it: “a working active beingness.” A Sand Book lived in my bag all summer, nothing like an obligation and everything like a friend. The twelve sections could easily be free-standing volumes, but they churn in tandem, smoothly, inducing various states: ecstatic neutrality, detailed refusal, unworried celebration. The narrator studies

  • New as Foam, Old as Rock

    Pop critics are a sensitive lot. We fret about not being taken seriously and our heroes not getting a spot in the marble. Somehow the economic downturn hit us hardest, click-horny editors happened only to us, and the corrosives of social media burned us worst. And yet! We dropped into this foamy chaos of our own accord, this liminal gig with the lightest of accreditations and a very short stack of traditions to deform, or defend.

    At least some of this sense of insult is a response to real tendencies. Over the past fifty years, the music critic has gently shifted in position, from antagonistic

  • Blinded by the White

    Novelist and teacher Jess Row has been thinking about racial identity for a while. That idea winds through his two story collections—The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost—and is central to Your Face in Mine, “a novel in which a young white man undergoes ‘racial reassignment surgery’ to become black,” to use Row’s description. In his new collection of essays, White Flights, Row tries to determine how whiteness can be found in language (music and writing both qualify). White Flights is a frantic loop, though, full of strong analyses that are suddenly abandoned while Row takes off into a

  • File Under . . .

    THE FINAL DRAFT OF THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro’s portrait of the ruthlessly productive NYC parks commissioner Robert Moses, came in at over a million words. “Not a rough draft, the polished final draft,” Caro tells us in his brief new memoir, Working. Over 300,000 words were cut from that “final” version before it was published in 1974. (It won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography that year.) At this distance, that edit seems unwise. “Turn every goddamned page” was the rule Caro learned in the ’60s from editor Alan Hathway of Newsday, his boss at the time. Those pages removed from Caro’s draft,

  • The Story of the Eye

    John Berger became a writer you might find on television because of Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC series that became a short and very famous book. The show presented observations now common to pop-culture reviews—publicity “proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more”—in a place (a box!) that rarely admitted critique beyond yea or nay. The book version of Ways of Seeing, which combined photos and text in a montage format, is now a staple of critical-writing syllabi. Writers like Laura Mulvey and Rosalind Krauss wrote the definitive versions of theories

  • The Reminder

    In 2006, the late teacher, critic, and blogger Mark Fisher contributed an essay called “Gothic Oedipus: Subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins” to ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Fisher routes his discussion of Batman Begins around the gothic, noir, Lacan’s concept of the Symbolic Father, and a 2001 interview with Alain Badiou, all of which are funneled into the concept of “capitalist realism,” Fisher’s best-known idea and the title of his 2009 book.

    Capitalist realism has become an effective and portable idea because it confirms that capitalism can also

  • Of Infamous Women

    There will be people who visit you in prison, and who watch over you at first when you come out. They will try to help you, but unless they truly understand your lot, understanding your goodness as well as your badness, and sympathising with your badness as well as with your goodness, they will seem far off from you. Who knows, though, but what you may help them?

    —Constance Lytton, from Prisons & Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (1914)

    WHAT HAPPENS WHEN you’re removed from the scrum of history, when you can’t change anything beyond your immediate experience? That’s one of the questions

  • Two Mississippi

    Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County and Jesmyn Ward has Bois Sauvage—neither real, both true. Faulkner reimagined Lafayette County, in the northern half of Mississippi, while Ward has used Bois Sauvage in three novels to stand in for the small towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which could include DeLisle, where Ward grew up. Ward’s 2008 debut, Where the Line Bleeds, is about twin brothers struggling to get by in Bois Sauvage. Salvage the Bones (2011) follows Esch, a pregnant teenager who loves Greek mythology, living in the days before Hurricane Katrina. (This won Ward the National Book Award

  • Hammer Time

    Mary Gaitskill's nonfiction differs from her fiction not in quality—the essays in Somebody with a Little Hammer are as intense as the stories—but in delivery and voice. Like Chekhov, Mary Gaitskill uses simple, concrete language to bottle human desire. (She would not use that metaphor. In fact, there are few authors less likely to resort to metaphor than Gaitskill.) Here, though, the first person allows Gaitskill to turn the camera on herself in a way that fiction precludes. In her unboxing of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Gaitskill opens with a joke that both perforates her subject and undoes a

  • Words Into Action

    The book I have in mind does not exist, but it can. Take James Baldwin's short 1984 essay for Essence, "On Being White . . . And Other Lies," and attach it to the front of Hannah Arendt's 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Baldwin's tone, both elegant and impatient, carries him through a brief description of how the concept of whiteness (and the State of Israel) is maintained. Arendt focuses, nominally, on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. These categories are wide enough that she is able to describe many distinct realities, possibly from a point in the middle distance,

  • Exile on All Streets

    Zadie Smith's Swing Time is light by design but as powerful as its predecessor, NW. Where that book vaulted a reader down the block, Swing Time carries you gently to a finish that is bloodless and brutal. The two novels are siblings, rooted in the same slice of northwest London, though Swing Time casts out into New York and West Africa. Themes found in all of Smith's novels appear: the clash between various Anglophone cultures; a friendship falling out of alignment when only one of the friends hits the big time; and the ways people use each other as markers of authenticity.

    Swing Time is

  • Out-of-Office Message

    Joshua Ferris’s fiction reverses the daily grind—characters wake up at the office and gradually wind their way home, to a place they wouldn’t have recognized at the beginning of the day. His novels are meditations on labor and alienation in contemporary America, stocked with characters for whom life is a disease at once mediated, ameliorated, and worsened by work. Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (2007), about the decline of a loopy bunch of passive employees at an ad agency, is part of a continuum that emerged first in television shows and movies, starting with Mike Judge’s 1999 film