• June 19, 2012

    Los Angeles for Beginners

    No one who arrives in Los Angeles comes without baggage. I came with a whole lifetime of seeing the city through the filter of its culture industries and the region’s relentless self-promotion. This did not prepare me for the real thing. Watching Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself—a brilliant documentary composed entirely of clips of the city in other movies—would have disabused me of at least some of the worst inaccuracies and illusions spun by Hollywood, but I didn’t see it until it was too late. I did come with the standard roster of guides: Time Out, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide.

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  • May 25, 2012

    Tainted Love

    The desire to capture the intersections and overlaps of love and consumer capitalism isn’t new—after all, Fitzgerald packed The Great Gatsby’s doomed romance with God-like billboards, lethal cars, and semi-famous lady golfers nearly a century ago. But in the last fifty-odd years, love, consumer goods, and entertainment have become even more inseparable, making love heavily mediated and harder than ever to locate, let alone describe. But good literature can still shed light on the naked heart beating beneath pop culture’s skin. The following writers have done just that, deconstructing and

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  • April 02, 2012

    Hobo Lit

    America’s attitudes toward its most destitute citizens have always been sharply polarized. Consider, for instance, the philosophical divide between Emerson’s uncharitable self-reliance (“Are they my poor?”) and proto-liberal Thoreau’s opinion that “none can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.” Yet the ideas of self-reliance and voluntary poverty often converge in the classic American “bindlestiff” (or hobo) figure who hops trains or hitchhikes across the country, forever living on the margins of an unforgiving

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  • March 16, 2012

    Coming of Age

    I came of age online in the late ‘90s. Some of the friends I made on listservs and LiveJournal at the time are still friends today, in “real life.” I was blogging and keeping a diary online years before I even had a cell phone. In retrospect, participating in a space that was public but still felt anonymous has undeniably shaped my identity as a writer.

    I wonder if coming-of-age novels are changing because coming-of-age itself is changing as adolescence becomes increasingly protracted. (Some critics have raised the “second adolescence” phenomenon when referring to my novel’s twenty-two-year-old

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  • North Korea's Arirang Mass Games
    January 26, 2012

    Understanding North Korea

    Few outsiders have seen North Korea, in spite of the increasing international urgency to understand it. Perhaps for this reason, stories from the hermit kingdom hold a unique power over us. Like books about China written from behind the bamboo curtain, our only understanding of this “workers’ paradise” comes from state propaganda, and sensationalistic accounts from defectors—many of which can never be verified. But for all the accounts that go unchallenged, there are also books like the ones below, ones written by scholars and journalists working to shed light on the mysterious DPRK.

    Lee Ambrozy

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  • November 29, 2011

    Remixology

    You’re a rare writer if you don’t occasionally suspect yourself of plagiarism, of unconsciously stealing phrases from your favorite author or appropriating plot points from books you've read as a child. Or maybe, you're haunted by a sneaking suspicion that everything is something you’ve read before. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The books below not only acknowledge the artistic impulse to use borrowed material, they embrace it as the cultural phenomenon it’s become. The digital revolution means that an audience can, for the first time, respond rapidly, actively, and en masse to whatever

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  • November 17, 2011

    Field of Screens

    In fiction, video games act as both the harbingers of dystopia and the means of salvation from bleak techno-futures. Between these two poles lies a vast possibility space, something William Gibson formulated with the idea of cyberspace in his 1982 story "Burning Chrome," a "colorless non-space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination." Ultimately, when video games appear in fiction, they embody the hallucinations of those who use them, and illuminate the desires that brought them into being.

    Michael Thomsen lives in New York. He has written about sex, video games, and

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  • November 03, 2011

    Playing with Tennis

    Something is lost when tennis is televised. The blocky, overhead vantage favored by networks compresses the court and caricatures its occupants. The ball becomes a blur of fuzz and neon, often shot in histrionic slow-mo. Reduced to a series of zoom-ins and zoom-outs, the game congeals into a mass of grunts, moans, and commercials. Well-executed prose, by contrast, amplifies tennis’s inherent drama, probes its psychic interior, and reveals its resonances beyond the court’s 2,800-odd square feet. The following texts play with tennis in this expanded verbal field, exploiting those techniques of

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  • September 22, 2011

    The Pleasures of Misbehavior

    In theory, nothing should give us greater satisfaction than being fundamentally good, likable human beings. People trust us, tell us secrets, look to us for advice, rave to others about how we helped them that night they drank too much or got a flat tire. In theory, kindness wins us the admiration of those we love and desire, makes us friends, gets us promoted, puts us on the fast track for happy and meaningful lives. And yet, if all this is true, how can we possibly explain the allure of the sinister and immoral characters found throughout literature, and particularly, 19th century literature?

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  • Photo by Shane Gorski
    September 15, 2011

    Ruins

    “There’s a fascination frantic / In a ruin that’s romantic” – Gilbert and Sullivan, in The Mikado.

    Ruins have for several centuries been objects of literary and artistic veneration, reminders of real and imaginary catastrophe, images of historical hubris and souvenirs from dashed futures. Central to the history of Western aesthetics, ruins are also symbols of the perils of Romantic melancholy, of picturesque sentiment and pure kitsch. From Denis Diderot’s meditations on the paintings of Hubert Robert, through Romantic poetry and “The Fall of the House of Usher” to J. G. Ballard’s post-industrial

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  • September 07, 2011

    Notes on Raunch

    Libidinous readers are doubtlessly familiar with Philip Roth’s liver-lubed onanists, John Updike’s man-boys with their dangling modifiers, and the spank-happy secretaries who populate Mary Gaitskill’s fictional universe. Perhaps you’ve traced the lineage of literary eros back to, well, Eros, as rendered by Aristophanes, Catullus, Ovid and the like. And then pushed forward, making pit stops at all erotic poles: Sade, Lawrence, Bataille, Duras, Salter, Winterson, Acker, and Baker (author of the new “book of raunch” House of Holes). But sex is a tireless subject, infinitely engaging. There’s always

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  • August 10, 2011

    Queer Alternatives to Married Life

    The weekend same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York, we celebrated. All kinds of people—straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual—came out to party, and pundits and politicians proclaimed it a turning point. But as the dust settled in the intervening weeks, sympathetic skeptics have emerged everywhere from the local gay bar to the New York Times Op-Ed page, and their reservations are not your grandmother's. Since long before same-sex marriage seemed like a viable political option, people of all sexual persuasions have been questioning its desirability, innovating alternate modes of

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