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“As for narrativity,” Galen Strawson writes, “I suspect that it is, in the sphere of ethics, more of an affliction or a bad habit than a prerequisite for a good life.” The philosopher is here refuting what he calls “a fallacy of our age,” “that there is only one way in which human being experience their being in time.” A fascinating refutation of this fallacy might be found in protagonist Adam Gordon in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, who is perhaps as well the Adam Gordon of Ben Lerner’s previous novels 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station. The Adam Gordon that is a maybe a cipher for the author, or traces of our own individual midwestern upbringings, “embodied echoes of the past, repetitions just beneath the threshold of existence.”
The end of Adam’s senior year of high school, his early and late childhood, his predestined National Forensics League national championship, his mid-college nervous breakdown, the horrific and violent trauma he witnesses and seems irrevocably entangled within the summer before he leaves home--that is, the events of this novel--do not form a narrative so much as they serve as instructive fragments. These are fragments Lerner masterfully links to sub-threshold family, cultural, and political histories, and interrupts with the stunning first-person recollections of Adam's parents and sketches of the emotional interior of the troubled subject at the center of that violent trauma. They are fragments Lerner has recovered and, with devastating emotional honesty, re-charged. To read The Topeka School is to experience the shock of the present as a disruption not just of our prior understanding of history's trajectory but of our tidy sense of ourselves within it. That reckoning opens up one of the most powerful, resonant inquiries available in contemporary fiction into what, in dangerous and disjointed times, might possibly constitute a good life
Good theoretical writing makes it feel like two brains are on fire in mutual excitement and discovery — the writer themselves, and the involved reader, each anticipating, together, the next turn and “a-ha!”. In The Reactionary Mind,you can almost feel Corey Robin pushing up against the limits of description as he fleshes out a deceptively simple, well-researched and sourced, and deeply novel and prescient thesis — that conservatism in theory is not an ideology but an (often desperate) disposition toward the maintenance of hierarchical power. Throughout recent history, the counterrevolutionary has needed a revolutionary with which to counterpose himself, the object of his revanche, against whom — to paraphrase Burke — he might encounter some unholy and sublime meaning. Our liberal and tried and solemn tendency today is to think of figures like Trump as breakers of sacred norms, as historically unprecedented figures, whereas Robin stunningly and in clarifying, often beautifully composed inquiry, reveals them to be not just weak but classically of the mode — as “it’s not that the counterrevolutionary is disposed to paradox; he’s simply forced to straddle historical contradictions for power’s sake.” To misapprehend the conservative and the counterrevolutionary is to lose out on both the significance and also the predictability of our present moment, and in so doing fatally misjudge the enemy and the way forward.
Of the title of the collection, one might think of the transformative "look" of a camera's aperture, like the haunted world opened up by Niépce's photograph of his estate in Burgundy, a reproduction of which graces the cover. Or one, likely immediately, thinks of the "look" shared between any two people in almost any situation, and what ineffably lies there. Then one confronts the Department of Defense terminology, "a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence," and is overpowered by the almost self-satirical passivity of defining "look" as simply the mine's search for the joint subject of its death.
Sharif's poems are often redacted, some by blank space or suggestion, many by small caps words found in the aforementioned Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, harming their speakers' ability to completely and unobtrusively refer to the world or one's memories of it without militarized influence, and by extension for a life free from the ramifications of these terms and their partitions to even exist. They impose upon a reader's emotional connotations as well, disrupt and frustrate them. It is understatement to say that the comfortable reader is here critically made uncomfortable, and in this way Sharif's usage of a specialized, dehumanized military lexicon helps comprise a masterful, humanist poetics of subversion and resistance. LOOK has found and opened up a critical juncture in our language--"Let it matter what we call a thing"--and insists that we should not, and cannot, look away.
Don DeLillo said recently that his work is about “living in dangerous times.” This appears no different in his latest, Zero K, set in a near future or parallel present where the terror of the Anthropocene—ecological disaster, biosphere die-off, resource war, strife upon endless strife—has taken firm root, and where Jeffery Lockhart’s father and stepmother have come to a secluded, stateless desert compound inside of which an afterlife (from civilization’s collapse, from history, "from reasonableness," from death) is hurriedly being constructed by technocrats, elite conceptual artists, and moneyed syncretic gurus.
Essayist Roy Scranton has argued that “the biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead,” that we must “get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility” in lieu of hoping for something like ‘more time.’ Against growing waves of technological solutionism both here on our earth and masterfully imagined in Zero K, DeLillo, through the yearning, searching Jeffery Lockhart, ponders the possibility that true adaptation to these inevitabilities means embracing our simple, mortal everydays, whether in the present moment or in memory.
This is DeLillo turning away from the opportunity for the densely plotted, wondrous excess of fictions past and toward something else, and it is rarer, gentler and glory-filled.
Ostensible poet Ben Lerner's second novel is named after an important plot element from Robert Zemeckis's seminal 1985 film Back to the Future. Marty McFly, in order to leave the past of Hill Valley, CA, must harness the energy of a bolt of lightning set to strike a clocktower in the town square, generating the necessary 1.21 gigawatts for a time-travelling DeLorean, at 10:04pm, Novebember 12th, 1955.
10:04's narrator, both Ben Lerner himself and not (in a "flickering between" fiction and non-fiction), is also on deadlines, though perhaps not as definite as the ones pressed upon Marty McFly. Ben's best friend has asked him to assist her in having a child despite her waining fertility, and his own "abnormal sperm." Ben has been given an advance for his second novel, though he hasn't started work on it. Ben has been diagnosed with a potentially aneurysmal dilation of his aortic root. Half the world will be without safe access to freshater by 2030. Anomalous storms may permanently flood Lower Manhattan. Anti-austerity movements seem to have been largely ineffectual. 10:04 is about our time, about hoping for a world we can confront un-alone. It is about our simultaneous witnessing of both "the presence of the future" and "the abscence of the future." Lerener's voice is funny, smart, and wise. He is right there, with us, and he knows how it is.
Ibrahim wrote That Smell shortly after a 5-year stint as a political prisoner in Nasser's Egypt. The book was banned, though it contains no outright political language. Perhaps it is its lack of this language, its portrayal of the boredom, routine, and low-level anxiety of a former prisoner, that made the novel so incendiary. Its muteness and distress is alarming and decidedly prescient.
When I was little, there was a children's computer game my brother and I often played called The Mahole. The Manhole was developed by Cyan Worlds (it was their first game, they would later develop the popular Myst series). The Manhole was whimsical, a first person point-and-click adventure through a magical world accessible by a common manhole cover. It had beautiful monochromatic pixel drawings nad used spare, odd sound effects. Also, it was deepl (I now think purposefully) creepy. [An aside: you can easily track down and watch an entire playthrough of the game on youtube.]
Reading Annihilation, the first installment of The Sourthern Reach Trilogy, reminds me of how I felt playing The Manhole. In both, you find yourself descending into a new world, not knowing exactly why or what is contained within it, what it all might do to you. And while Vandermeer's book is in the tradition of the sci-fi thriller or the horror testimonial (or, hey, another computer game series Myst and The Mahole are indebted to: Zork), those genres become (like "children's game") a mask for something far more mysterious and compelling.
I read this book in two fevered, insomnia-filled evenings. I love the idea of space operas, and much of Sci-Fi in general, but the lumpy prose tends to keep me away. Haldeman, however, writes like a writer-this is a pulpy, smart, quick read. Moreover, it is a singularly stinging account of war, "citizenship," the treatment of veterans, fidelity. Also-the use of time dilation is awesome. Never have I had more fun feeling even more cynical about mankind. Lasers! Blood! The horrible expansion of the military-industrial complex! Sex!
A narrator that is and is not Sebald takes a walking tour of the coast of Suffolk, but what we mostly receive of it are his serious meditations on Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial (and Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson"), holiday towns in desrepair, the fate of war dead remains on forgotten battlegrounds, the cultivation of silkworms, the legacy of Roger Casement, and much more as he, ghostlike, glides along the coast. Filed w/ allusive, often spectral photographs, Mark O'Conner has commented in The New Yorker that within Sebald's elliptical prose are stirring narratives of "shame and historical occlusion." This is a work beyond the plotted narrative, but it features a treasurable voice of moral inquiry and historical consciousness that won't soon be surpassed.
Kraus left a "failing" career in video art and then wrote this semi-autobiographical, full-on philsophically brilliant epistolary novel addressed to "Dick": a real man she meets at a party, her husband's colleague, a concept, an art project. Eileen Myles, in the intro, notes that Kraus "turned female abjection inside out and aimed it a man [...] Kraus's unswervingly attempted and felt female life is both a total work and it didn't kill her." The scary, hard truth for the reader is also how Kraus--author and character--lays bare the thin border between love and artistic practice, persona and person, "theory" and "life."
Frank is a 'difficult' poet, by which I mean that difficulty is on his end. In his early persona poems, and here in the bare, open personal poesis of (perhaps) himself, Bidart plumbs the depths of our darker human experiences and gives a language to them. Even at his most mythical (check out 'Ganymede'), it seems Bidart is after more the mystery of what is regular and quotidian about, well, all of us. Also there's a poem about Heath Ledger as the Joker. Bidart is, behind all the hype and legend status (insular as that is to the poetry world), just a poet one ought to know before shipping down Styx.
I have to admit that as young person, flipping through my parent's New Yorkers just for the one or two cartoons I might possibly comprehend, I often skipped over Roz's intricate, idiosyncratic pieces. Foolish of me, as now I want to tell every human I know to experience this brutal, beautiful, hilarious memoir immediately. We are all likely to experience the "Long Goodbye" with our parents and loved ones, but Chast gives me a peculiar kind of hope about it. Not just a fantastic account of end-of-life care, a tribute, a medium perfected, it is an honest, loving, moving work of art.
"We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought. Posterity, anyway, does not know everything. The simplest operations of life--voting in a booth, filling out returns, remembering whether or not one has taken a pill--are very difficult. Jim leads an examplary life, and I can't cook. As is clear from the parking regulations, however, there are situations in which you are not entitled to stop."
Too often, Adler's prose makes me short of breath--I've dog eared so many pages there's not even a point anymore. If you haven't read this, now is the time.
Carl Phillips is my favorite poet. That we all get to look forward to a new collection nearly every year is, well, certainly a blessing I don't take for granted.
Phillips has written that "art can become, eventually, all we have of what was true." I've taken a lot of walks this year. It is all that I have done, really, that seems remarkable. They usually contain the small mercy of allowing my mind to wander--sometimes to pleasant places, near-hallucinatory reverie. Still, not infrequently, my memories return me to troubling or difficult places. In the poem, "Wherefore Less Lonely," Phillips writes, "Augustine speaks / of memory as a mansion of vast halls, many-chambered, and / fair enough, that's how memory can seem, though other times more / a labyrinth of dead ends and false openings, there's a way out // --but finding it?" These poems don't presume to find a way out, but they offer solace, reflection, and instructive complication. Like a clearing in the forest whose beauty doesn't belie that, to leave it again, one must still go back through.