• June 08, 2015

    The Literature of Obsolescence

    William Gaddis, the author perhaps most concerned with the entropic decay of older systems and organizational principles in fiction, famously taught a class at Bard College in 1979 on “The Literature of Failure.” The books on his syllabus, which included texts ranging from Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, gestured toward an ethic of personal failure or insufficiency—a sense of one’s faulty position within the baroque machinery of American productivity.

    The threat of obsolescence takes many forms, and may have marked stylistic

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  • May 14, 2015

    The Innocent/Corrupt

    A narrator is a much stranger toy at the novelist’s disposal than is usually thought. It’s not just something as depressingly ordinary as a character—more a vast system of smuggling. And there’s one kind of narrative voice or tone in particular that offers a way to explore that difficult relationship at the hidden center of every art form: the one between writer and reader (or spectator). Although this tone seems to exist most easily in novels, it isn’t only to be found there—it appears wherever anyone tries to figure out what a monologue might mean, or how to talk to a you. It is garrulous,

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  • May 04, 2015

    The Nicholson Baker Course

    When I starting reading Nicholson Baker, so as to write my homage, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I quickly grew concerned, because Baker’s many writerly interests got all jumbled up in my mind. It’s just this kind of jumble that triggers the taxonomical reflex in teachers of writing and literature—jumbles must be ordered, organized into units of study—and I did not stop being concerned until I realized that embracing this sense of jumbledness, books and ideas seeming to clamber all over one another, would produce the best possible portrait of Baker’s mind. I offer the following

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  • October 30, 2014

    Andre Dubus's best characters

    Andre Dubus’s literary superpower is to hit upon that one thing about a character that makes him him, or her her. And in so doing, with subtle, clever details—breadcrumbs on the trail to the nucleus of a character—he makes a reader want to keep going, because she knows exactly who these people are and has to know what happens to them. It’s a feat that fellow short-form heavyweights Chekhov and Carver knew all about. Rather than getting bogged down in the details—hair and eye color, the make of automobiles, the inconsequential cousins and endless backstories—Dubus trains his eye on the here and

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  • The 1966 Dell edition of James Baldwin's Another Country
    September 11, 2014

    Sextet

    “Writing about music,” the saying goes, “is like dancing about architecture.” If it's meant to dissuade, the warning has gone unheeded: Over the years, a number of novels about music have ingeniously translated this notoriously languageless experience into English. In rock novels or the burgeoning genre of lit-hop, most of the action happens to non-musicians—the listeners populating record stores, high schools, the streets. The primary focus of the jazz novel, however, is the musicians themselves. No other form pays as much attention to the players, their instruments, and the music as it is

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  • The 1953 Fasquelle Editeur edition of  Le Surmale by Alfred Jarry
    July 01, 2014

    Weird Sex

    There’s good sex and there’s bad sex. And then there’s weird sex—a Freudian purgatory that somehow neither stimulates the libido nor inhibits it. In art and life, we’re inclined to seek out pleasure to combat unpleasant reality. The sex in these books is too odd or awkward or off-kilter for that. I return to it to remember that little makes us feel more exposed, vulnerable, and humiliatingly human than taking off your clothes with another person—or alien, statue, vegetable, or disembodied arm.

    Vanessa Roveto is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

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  • Movie poster for Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961).
    April 07, 2014

    Great Book/Great Movie

    What does it mean for a movie adaptation to be “true to the book”? Many movies based on novels unimaginatively transcribe plot and dialogue, as if the difference between literature and cinema were linguistic, and adaptation a simple matter of translation from one language to another. Filmmakers who succeed in turning great fiction into great cinema do so by a process of deep reading, perhaps even of criticism, teasing something essential out of the novel and communicating it cinematically. This list is hardly exhaustive, but below are some examples of excellent novels that spawned films that

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  • Los Angeles
    March 10, 2014

    Urban Planning (or Placemaking)

    What should we call the design, construction, and study of the built environment? “Geography” is too broad. “Regional planning” sounds like a job reserved for bureaucracies. “Urban planning”—the usual catchall term—is a holdover from the profession’s early years, when industrial blight was one of America’s biggest domestic problems. Today we are worrying about our cities for different reasons, and our suburbs and open spaces are demanding equal concern. How do we retrofit our aging suburbs? Can design foster stronger communities? What does sustainable development really mean? These questions

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  • February 10, 2014

    The Absurd and Beautiful World of Figure Skating

    Figure skating is perhaps the least understood sport. The average layperson refers to every movement a skater completes as a “triple Axel” and forgets about the sport for four years at a time. Yet skating is, for some, an all-encompassing passion. A global sport, skating provides a lens through which one can explore some of the past century’s major historical phenomena (the AIDS crisis, the Cold War) and cultural trends (the cult of the sports commentator). The literature around figure skating is like the sport itself—entertaining, utterly human, flush with both absurdity and beauty. Here are

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  • Katherine Anne Porter
    January 24, 2014

    Great Works About Raising Kids with Mental Illness

    The greatest fear I harbor about having kids is that I will, as Philip Larkin puts it in “This Be the Verse,” fuck them up. I will fuck them up in some imperceptible way at first and there will be big consequences for it later. I fear that something will be “off” with my Hypothetical Child and I will be unaware or incapable of understanding it immediately, and that when I do finally become aware, I will somehow make matters worse by choosing the wrong treatment or not recognizing the gravity of whatever my child is going through. Perhaps, I fear, I will do too much and employ some intervention

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  • January 20, 2014

    Books for Twenty-First Century Travelers

    If on a winter’s night a traveler, in a taxi headed south from Bombay’s airport with a heavy suitcase full of hard drives, handmade electronics, and newly bought used books, were to consider his or her recent trip from New York to a village in Europe, to suburban London to Cork to Cairo (via Amman), the exhausting thing about it wouldn’t be the sheer physical distance covered in economy seats, or the days of caffeine and work and nights of drinking and conversations but something in the background—the incredible range of contexts one, or if lucky two or three of us together, passes through and

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  • Clarice Lispector
    January 13, 2014

    Flannery O’Connor, Faith, and Fiction

    In Flannery O’Connor’s recently published prayer journal, which she wrote in her early twenties, her ambitions as a fiction writer often get entangled with her aspirations to summon God into the work itself. “Start with the soul and perhaps the temporal gifts I want to exercise will have their chance. . . . God must be in all my work.” (See our review.) What makes her fiction great is not her intention to write directly about “Christian principles”; such an aim could have easily steered her to produce sermonizing fables or sentimental inspirational tales. Rather, her deeply original, dark, and

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