• print • Summer 2020

    Purity of the Heart Is to Follow One Thing

    SØREN KIERKEGAARD WAS AN EARNEST, brilliant, difficult, vituperative, sensitive, sickly emo brat whose statue in the Valhalla of Sad Young Literary Men is surely the size of a Bamiyan Buddha. He was a Christian whose devoutness was so idiosyncratic as to be functionally indistinct from heresy; who lived large on family money until the money ran out and then died so promptly that you’d almost think he planned the photo finish; who tried and failed to save Christianity from itself, but succeeded (without really trying) in founding “a new philosophical style, rooted in the inward drama of being

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Meditations in an Emergency

    DURING THE FIRST WEEKS of quarantine, I would become exasperated when I’d hear some expression of gratitude for the platforms and technologies keeping us socially connected, as though connection is only virtuous, or would be balm enough. It seemed apparent that the value of disconnection was an equally pressing lesson, a condition put before us to wrestle with, to practice, to sit with, and, perhaps, to learn from. Perhaps disconnection would even be essential to defining how and in what altered state we might arrive at the other side of this horrific, if expected, shakedown. Wanting role models

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  • print • Summer 2020

    The Other America

    IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION, a significant influence on Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s new memoir American Harvest, the first-century prophet John is beset by visions while in exile. He sees locusts with human faces, a slaughtered lamb, a dragon with seven heads. An angel promises to condemn those who refuse God’s teachings to a fiery abyss and guarantees the return of Jesus after his people have endured a series of trials. In time, the messenger says, the old world of strife will be destroyed, and a new world will replace it. There, God will dwell with his people in peace. “And he carried me away in

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Do Your Job

    IT WAS LATE ON THE FIRST NIGHT of Corona Times Passover and my teenage son chewed on a piece of matzo. Mind you, we were not following dietary restrictions. We’d had Hawaiian pizza for dinner, during which I’d rehashed the flight from Egypt, but hours later we were bored and peckish and broke in to the box of Streit’s my wife, who is not Jewish, had been kind enough to score at the supermarket.

    “Tastes like shit,” my son said, chewing.

    “They didn’t have time to make real bread.”

    “Who, the people at the matzo factory?”

    “No, the ancient Jews. I told you that. Anyway, it doesn’t taste like

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  • print • Summer 2020

    The Atrocity Exhibition

    APRIL 21, 2020. Last night, the crazed leader announced that he wants to ban immigration. Today I was told to prepare for furlough at my job, and I spoke to my friend who cannot get her cancer treatments. Down the road at the hospital, they are still forklifting corpses into refrigerated trucks. The price of oil has tanked. Around the corner someone has painted these words on the side of a mailbox: PROTECT BLACK PEOPLE. COVID-19. The midwife who delivered my children is begging for masks. All of the mom-and-pop shops have shuttered. The streets are littered with discarded blue surgical gloves

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  • print • Summer 2020

    City of the Damned

    AS NEW YORK WAS DECLARED the COVID-19 pandemic’s epicenter, the ghost of Dorothy Parker began turning up in my bedroom at daybreak. “What fresh hell can this be?” Parker whispered, an earworm I could not stop hearing. They say the cure for an earworm is to listen to the song in its entirety; in my case, I thumbed through the morning’s headlines like a drowsy automaton until a fuller, worsened picture of our city’s new netherworld emerged.

    “What are some films in which New York is portrayed as hell?” I asked my boyfriend. Perhaps such movies would provide an admittedly demented form of exposure

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Comedy of Heirs

    TRISTRAM SHANDY sailed into eighteenth-century literary history alongside such bawdy picaresques as Tom Jones. But unlike the rest Laurence Sterne’s creation is an antinovel: It starts and stops, has entire pages that aren’t even text—blank or solid black or marbled or filled with lines and swirls that indicate the wayward shapes of the narrative (at such moments it seems like what Sterne really is is a concrete poet). On the occasions when the author doesn’t want you to know what naughty thing he’s saying (though he quit being a minister to write, Sterne was still a modest man) there are

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Women on the Verge

    For many of its participants, the women’s liberation movement represented a saving break with an unremittingly bleak past. A switch flipped at the end of the 1960s, and the culture flooded with light. Where once there had been only darkness—Ladies’ Home Journal, back-alley abortions, MRS degrees—now there was feminism: Kate Millett made the cover of Time, Shirley Chisholm made the ballot, and young women picketed bridal fairs and beauty pageants that they might have attended a year before. In 1971, fiction writer Tillie Olsen remarked with awe that “this movement in three years has accumulated

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Pass the Alt

    “In Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible,” Grace Elizabeth Hale opens her new book Cool Town, about how the B-52s, R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt, and scads of lesser-known alternative-rock artists sprang out of one small southern college town four decades ago. My first impulse was to substitute the line Tolstoy might have written if Tolstoy had been really into rock bands: All local music scenes are the same, but every music scene is local in its own way. Young people coalesce around a few emerging performers or spaces or

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  • print • Summer 2020

    The Painting on the Wall

    In Murals of New York City, all of the Big Apple’s bygone eras seem to blend together. On the walls of Neoclassical courthouses and Art Deco airports, hallowed hotel bars and brick borough halls, we see the Rockefellers and Roosevelts still running things, and the Astaires, the Barrymores, and the Fitzgeralds forever flitting around. People smoked in restaurants, and artists—apparently—had studios in the attic of Grand Central Terminal. Graffiti didn’t yet have a name. The New School was still new, as was the New Deal. The Works Progress Administration paid for everything. It’s the Gilded Age,

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  • print • Summer 2020

    Barbarous and Delicate

    A few months ago, the thirtieth-anniversary republication of a book written at the peak of the HIV epidemic and chronicling the impact of the virus on an intimate social circle of French writers, artists, medical professionals, and intellectuals—Michel Foucault among them—might have been a boutique or scholarly curiosity. AIDS, after all, has become one of the few medical and socio-biological “success” stories of recent decades. Testing plus an effective cocktail of antiretroviral drugs, alongside newer prophylactic treatments like Truvada, has reduced the illness to a chronic condition rather

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  • print • Summer 2020

    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

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