Category: Criticism

Why do white people like what I write?

Pankaj Mishra for the London Review of Books

From Pankaj Mishra’s piece on the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates, featured in the LRB.


‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.

‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies.

Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001.

The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.


In many ways, Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.


Standing Up for Cinema

Martin Scorsese writing for TLS
Martin Scorsese - The Shining - TLS

Martin Scorsese writing about his view of cinema as an art form for TLS.

I am neither a writer nor a theorist. I’m a filmmaker. I saw something extraordinary and inspiring in the art of cinema when I was very young. The images that I saw thrilled me but they also illuminated something within me. The cinema gave me a means of understanding and eventually expressing what was precious and fragile in the world around me. This recognition, this spark that leads from appreciation to creation: it happens almost without knowing. For some, it leads to poetry, or dance, or music. In my case, it was the cinema.

Quite often, when people discuss the cinema, they talk about single images. The baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, for instance. Peter O’Toole blowing out the match in Lawrence of Arabia. John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood in his arms near the end of The Searchers. The blood gushing from the elevator in The Shining. The exploding oil derrick in There Will Be Blood. These are all absolutely extraordinary passages in the history of our art form. Extraordinary images, to be sure. But what happens when you take these images away from those that come before and after? What happens when you lift them out of the worlds to which they belong? You’re left with records of craftsmanship and care, but something essential is lost: the momentum behind and ahead of them, the earlier moments that they echo and the later moments for which they prepare the way, and the thousand subtleties and counterpoints and accidents of behaviour and chance that make them integral to the life of the picture. Now, in the case of the blood-gushing elevator from The Shining, you do have an image that can exist on its own – really, it can stand as a movie on its own. In fact, I believe it was the first teaser trailer for the movie.

But that image on its own is one thing and how and what it is within the world of Stanley Kubrick’s film is something else again. The same goes for each of the examples I’ve mentioned above, all of which have been excerpted in countless clip reels. As artfully put together as some of those reels are, I find them disconcerting, because they usually amount to a series of official “great moments” pulled away from their contexts.

It’s also important to remember that most of these images are actually sequences of images: Peter O’Toole blowing out the match followed by the sun rising over the desert, the baby carriage rolling down the steps amid the chaos and brutality of the attack by the Cossacks. And beyond that, each separate cinematic image is comprised of a succession of still frames that creates the impression of motion. They are recordings of instants in time. But the moment you put them together, something else happens. Every time I get back into the editing room, I feel the wonder of it. One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone. Sergei Eisenstein talked about it on a theoretical level, and the Czech filmmaker František Vlácil discusses it in an interview included on the Criterion edition of his great medieval epic Marketa Lazarová(1967). The film critic Manny Farber understood it as elemental to art in general – that’s why he named his collection of writings Negative Space. This “principle”, if that’s what you could call it, is just as applicable to the juxtaposition of words in poetry or forms and colours in painting. It is, I think, fundamental to the art of cinema. This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making. Does this “phantom image” exist for casual viewers without an awareness of how films are put together? I believe it does. I don’t know how to read music and neither do most people I know, but we all “feel” the progression from one chord to another in music that affects us, and by implication some kind of awareness that a different progression would be a different experience.


A Story About a Parasitic Relationship

“Together” by Jess Arndt, recommended by Justin Torres for Electric Lit

Jess Arndt’s short story “Together”, with an introduction by Justin Torres for Electric Lit.

An Introduction by Justin Torres

Jess Arndt is a great prose stylist — but what does that mean? Well for one thing, it means Arndt writes with such poetry and such precision, that the force of the communication damn near knocks you over. The sentences turn, open, and crash down on you unexpectedly, rhythmically, like waves. Great style has something to do with surfaces, but that’s not all I mean when I say Arndt is a great stylist. I mean, too, that the pace and pull of this story — and really, every story in Large Animals — works something like an undertow. At the beach as child, I remember being warned about undertow and thinking, how could it be, amidst all the foam and roar and sparkle of the ocean’s surface, that an even stronger churning went on below? But that’s exactly the experience of reading Arndt: first mesmerized by the beautiful noise of the language, then knocked down, and dragged out to another, underwater world.“Together” is a story precisely about the churning going on beneath the surface — about the awful lot going on inside each of us. Arndt reminds us that physically, psychically, we are processes; we are happening all the time. The life of both mind and body is defined by an awesome and constant churning. And outside, in our backyards, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lovers and bosses — the churning continues. Places and people seduce, destroy, remake us in their undertow. What we would like to understand as form — the backyard, the body — is phenomena. What we would like to understand as impermeable is always susceptible to parasitic invasion. Instability is the shared condition of life. This is a thing we know, but the knowledge quickly stales, or we are distracted from the knowledge, or narcotized, or placated with straighter, more genteel notions I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful.

Reading Arndt, I was reminded of Genet, and reminded specifically of Sontag’s description of Genet, in “On Style.” “He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art.” Sontag goes on to connect style, above all, to will: “The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way.” I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful. I suppose it’s a particular kind of lineage, a particular kind of will I’m getting at, when talking about Sontag talking about Genet, and also talking about Arndt — I suppose it’s something like the will of the lover, the will of the parasite, the will of the undertow; I suppose I am talking about the will to queer the world.

Justin Torres Author of We the Animals

Together by Jess Arndt

We had it together but we also had it when we were apart. We got it in that comedor in Oaxaca, we both agreed. Or maybe it was that little town, just a few palapas actually and a beach with a deceptive number of black dogs, called San Angelino. But it’s also quite possible that we had gotten it on the subway. Don’t forget about a head of lettuce! our naturopath said. They caravan those heads in from anywhere imaginable. And water these days — it’s no good washing with it.We made a list of what was now okay and what wasn’t. Sugar, yeast, all the essentials — out. Enter: lines and lines of herbaceous esophagus-jamming pills we swallowed noon dinner and night.


Realism and Fantasy

Louise Glück for Lit Hub

Louise Glück writes for Lit Hub on different interpretations of realism: 

It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

My earliest reading was Greek mythology. As with my prayers, nothing was ever deleted, but categories were added. First the Oz books. Then biography, the how-to books of my childhood. How to be Madame Curie. How to be Lou Gehrig. How to be Lady Jane Grey. And then, gradually, the great prose novels in English. And so on. All these made a kind of reading different from the reading of poetry, less call to orders, more vacation.

What strikes me now is that these quite disparate works, Middlemarch and The Magical Monarch of Mo, seemed to me about equal in their unreality.

Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. The characters dress in certain ways, they eat certain things, society thwarts them in specific ways; therefore the real (or the theoretically real) acquires in time what the fantastic has always had, an air of vast improbability. There is this variation: the overtly fantastic represents, in imagination, that which has not yet happened (this is true even when it locates itself in a mythic past, a past beyond the reach of documented history). Realistic fiction corresponds roughly to the familiar and present reality of the reader; its strangeness is the strangeness of obsolescence or irrecoverability. Regarding this obsolescence one is sometimes grateful, sometimes mournful. Though the characters in their passions and dilemmas resemble us, the world in which these passions are enacted is vanished and strange. In the degree to which we cannot inhabit that world, the formerly real becomes very like the deliberately unreal.



Jon Day in the Financial Times

‘EL James is Teflon-coated.’ So begins Jon Day’s review of Grey (the new addition to the Fifty Shades festering corpus): a highly entertaining, review-cum-quotation exercise in the Financial Times.

… Grey is told from the perspective of Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire with what he calls a “dark, dark soul”. If it sounds like an interesting metafictional project, it isn’t.

The change in perspective hasn’t altered James’s style very much. Other than in the obvious way, she seems uninterested in penetrating the insides of her characters. Everything is told rather than shown. The closest thing we get to real introspection is when Grey thinks about himself, which he does often, sometimes in the third person. He looks in the mirror a lot. “My hair is wet from the shower, but I don’t give a shit,” he thinks. “One glance at the louche fucker in the mirror and I exit.” Occasionally he even thinks about himself thinking about himself: “I stop my wayward thoughts, alarmed at their direction. What the hell are you thinking, Grey?

Christian is forever commenting on his own prowess, in bed and elsewhere. “Flaunting my erudition,” he says, “I quote the words of Andrew Carnegie, my favorite industrialist.” He doesn’t just say things; he says them “emphatically” or “sardonically” or “dryly”. “My smile is ironic,” he thinks, again and again, as if to convince himself of the fact. He commends himself on the articulacy of his inner monologue: “She’s oil on my troubled, deep, dark waters. Hmm . . . flowery, Grey.

‘Buster Keaton’s Cure’

Charlie Fox in Cabinet Magazine

Charlie Fox’s essay for the latest issue of Cabinet Magazine on Buster Keaton’s voice, his alcoholism and a terrible cure he took for it:

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien, nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time, certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”

Here he is, a little man in his trademark outfit of porkpie hat and rumpled suit. He ignores all conversational prompts, playing dumb and nodding a little as if out of beat with the situation, mid-daydream. “The American public would like to hear you say something. Would you say something? Go ahead,” Wynn cajoles him, “speak!” And upon these ventriloquist’s orders, Buster commences a routine that looks like a ludic premonition of the anguished choreographies found in Samuel Beckett’s plays. (Shortly before his death, he would appear as the solitary figure in Beckett’s metaphysically queasy 1965 short, Film).1 Carefully, the voice must be readied—the whole body is involved. He shrugs his shoulders a few times, bends his knees to ensure that he’s suitably limber, then performs some exaggerated respirations that make his chest swell and deflate like a ragged bellows. There’s a mysterious procedure of cheek massage and jaw agitation in which he looks like a gargoyle attempting to reverse the effects of amphetamines. He spritzes something into his mouth, the host looks quizzically on, and what shy laughter there was in the audience has receded like a weak breeze. Then, at last, he says “Hello!” in an eager innocent’s yelp. Wynn is astonished! His owlish eyes go wide, and Buster falls, exhausted, into his arms as the audience chuckles. Television is probably more accommodating to such outbursts of staccato weirdness than any other medium, but Buster’s act is much more than just an odd trick. He isn’t out of shape: a subsequent re-enactment of “the first scene he ever did for a camera” will prove he’s freakishly limber for a fifty-four-year-old and his timing’s still pin-sharp. This impish revision of an old routine about a hatful of black molasses, with Wynn taking the role originally played by Buster’s old pal (and Hollywood outcast) Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle will exaggerate the formal habits of silent film—intertitles and melodramatic expressions—to levels of inspired lunacy. Like in all his best films, the sleepwalking smoothness of his physical antics combines with a preternatural sense of how film itself can be the subject of witty subversions and knowing mischief.

That bewildering joke, which suggests that Buster can only speak after laboriously readying his body, plays on the strange fate of silent film stars in our imagination: silence is a symptom of their magical condition. The more of them you watch, the more difficult it becomes to think of them as possessing voices at all. (Would Theda Bara be mute in public, too?) What breeds in silence is, naturally, a sort of excitable noise: heightened fascination, fantastical lore, and outlandish forms of erotic gossip, all of which conspire to hide the dumbstruck star. The uproarious arrival of sound often led these delicate figures into the long and lonely twilight of their careers. The silence that reigned in the cinema twenty years before seemed unspeakably distant and, like the others, Buster had transformed into a relic, an object suitable for gawking audiences and inducing occasionally lyrical fits of nostalgic reflection. But he was able to stage a return when many had retreated into memory or private darkness. The year of his appearance on The Ed Wynn Show, Clara Bow, the actress who had slinked through the world’s erotic dreamscape for much of the 1920s, had been admitted to a mental hospital with a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia, then subjected to aggressive electroshock treatment. Ravaged upon release, she abandoned her family and moved into a bungalow near Los Angeles that she seldom left until her death in 1965. Buster was ruined by a slow fall into alcoholism but returned, and yet his rehabilitation and—let’s go for the hysterical mood of melodrama—resurrection conjure up more ghosts. His alcoholism was seemingly cured by a manic, spuriously medical process, and he didn’t quite vanish in the obscure years before its success. There’s plenty of intoxicating material to be found by studying Buster if you dodge the lustrous peaks of his career in favor of going deep into its gloom and supposed dead ends.

Unfurling this distended postscript without acknowledgement of the astonishing properties of Buster’s art would be unkind. A case study of his childhood might be equally rich, too. Born in 1895, which makes his age exactly synchronous with cinema itself, he was a willing participant in vaudevillian mishegoss as soon as he could walk. According to myths circulated by his father, he had survived a few twirls in the eye of a Kansas tornado when he was three. Alongside his parents, he was part of the Three Keatons, a riotous slapstick act in which his mother played saxophone and his father discoursed on child discipline while hurling Buster about the stage. His education was irregular; his father was an alcoholic. In photographs from this time, he looks like a playful wraith.

As a child, silent cinema was a ghost house I had to explore. My sense of reality was already perilously vague and the thought of these films that would allow me to watch the mischief of specters—everyone in them was, by the time of my childhood, decidedly dead—was a deep and wicked thrill. Whole days disappeared in the attempt to cast the shadow of Nosferatu on the wall as I climbed the stairs again and again. (I failed: it was very tough to get the head correct, my skull lacking the required Expressionist jags.) I remember chancing across Buster’s face in a film history book one monochrome morning and feeling the peculiar sensation that this haunted boy knew I was looking at him. Wholly at odds with the wild-eyed mania that silent film acting often promised, his presence was gentle and radiated an unmistakable sadness. He had the dreamy, lonesome look of a stray dog. His eyes would widen in moments of moonstruck goofing or genuine enchantment, then look on the edge of sleep when he was puzzled. Nobody else’s body yielded so smoothly to the sublime mindlessness that the best physical comedy requires, and he was beautiful in a way that, say, a clerical nebbish like Harold Lloyd would never match. On film, even in flashes of jackrabbit energy, he’s airily nimble and weirdly aided by the jittery accelerations and diminuendos of silent film speed that can make him seem too limber in his skittering or too light in his falls to be made of flesh and bone. At those moments he’s closer to a bewitched marionette.

In 1928, Buster was talked into giving up his own studio, where he made his finest films, and switching to the ascendant MGM. Bad contracts were signed; dark clouds began to settle in his head. His subsequent drift into alcoholism looks like a commonplace response to the baleful state of Hollywood and deep marital discord. Seven years before, Buster had married Natalie Talmadge, a delicate, fawn-like beauty of seemingly untrammelled malevolence who banished him from their bedroom once he had supplied her with the two sons (and the mansion) she required, reported him for kidnapping when he took the boys for a weekend jaunt, and refused to hear his name in her presence until she died in 1969 after years blasted on painkillers and hopelessly soaked in booze. She appears to have dreamed of transforming Buster into a bland mixture of benefactor and milquetoast, though let’s note that as the far less successful middle sister of two wildly famous actresses, Norma and Constance, she was never able to tell her own story, skewed and vituperative as it might have been. Natalie’s chief occupation was perfecting the girlish swirls of her sisters’ signatures on an endless cascade of publicity stills. In a photograph taken on their wedding day, Buster stands in between the three sisters in a spotlight of May sunshine, looking like a man about to be led to the gallows. Norma and Constance retired with the advent of the talkies. Norma was reputedly the inspiration for Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain(1952), the starlet of uncommon radiance destroyed by the arrival of sound, which reveals to the world that she’s in possession of the shrill, needling voice of a Brooklyn chipmunk. The reclusive, gone-to-ruin silent movie heroine played by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard(1950) is also an acidulous portrait of Norma. Like her sister, she suffered an unhappy fate, fleeing to Las Vegas, gorging on painkillers, seeing no one, and drinking all the time until she died there on Christmas Eve in 1957. (Much the same happened to Constance: they made a tragic trio).

As the marriage dissolved, Buster tumbled toward oblivion, too, succumbing to the song of what he called his “inner Bacchus” in order to escape domestic pressures. He became estranged from his sons, whose last names were changed so that they were suddenly Talmadge property. The pleasures of drinking had long since faded into the delirious routine of everyday alcoholism as he got drunk from sunrise until he blacked out. As he recalls in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), “all my weekends were lost weekends.”2 He left the mansion and drifted around Hollywood in a land yacht, “a fancy house on wheels that had twin motors in the chassis of a Fifth Avenue bus, contained two drawing rooms, a galley, an observation deck and slept eight persons.” By way of melancholy endorsement, he notes, “I had as much fun with my land yacht as a man can whose purpose is to forget his whole private world has fallen apart.” In a drunken blur one Monday afternoon, he staggered down to the MGM lot and befriended an extra—“I could not say today whether she was a blonde, brunette or a redhead”—took her home, and let her have her pick of the contents of Natalie’s enormous wardrobe, heaping up piles of cocktail dresses, fur coats, gowns, and sparkling shoes. He appeared in What? No Beer! (1933), a dismal but hugely successful talkie with the antic Jimmy Durante in which this mismatched double act accidentally become beer barons as Prohibition’s on the wane. Buster plays a taxidermist and suitably moves with the shambling gait of a bear half-stuffed with wool. When shooting was over one night, he tried to drink himself into unconsciousness but failed and came reeling into the studio the next morning, only to promptly pass out.

When he awoke, he found a letter from the studio bosses telling him he was fired. Buster had become a drunk at a time when alcohol was a source of immense moral panic. (William Burroughs’s grandmother had the motto, “I’d rather a son o’ mine came home dead than drunk!”) Grimmest of all, he had fallen for whiskey, which, as he said later, was popularly regarded as “pure evil, apparently being distilled in hell itself.”

Throughout the early 1930s, the backdrops shuffled like a collection of old postcards as Buster appeared in cheap slapstick short films shot in Mexico, France, and England. He read the “idiot cards” that rendered lines in foreign languages into phonetic English, repeating his dialogue over and over again for different territories to save on the expense of dubbing. Drinking was a useless form of self-sabotage—even knockout drunk, he was still able to perform his stunts.


Renata Adler on Pauline Kael

In the New York Review of Books

In 1980, Renata Adler reviewed Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down for the New York Review of Books in 1980. Both of them were staff writers at the New Yorker. Time magazine called this ‘the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years.’ A worthy candidate for hatchet job of the century?

Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: “whore” (and its derivatives “whorey,” “whorish,” “whoriness”), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; “myth,” “emblem” (also “mythic,” “emblematic”), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; “pop,” “comicstrip,” “trash” (“trashy”), “pulp” (“pulpy”), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with “mythic”; “urban poetic,” meaning marginally more violent than “pulpy”; “soft” (pejorative); “tension,” meaning, apparently, any desirable state; “rhythm,” used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; “visceral”; and “level.” These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—“visceral poetry of pulp,” e.g., or “mythic comic-strip level”—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in “ized” (“vegetabilized,” “robotized,” “aestheticized,” “utilized,” “mythicized”), and a kind of slang (“twerpy,” “dopey,” “dumb,” “grungy,” “horny,” “stinky,” “drip,” “stupes,” “crud”) which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness.

I leave aside for the moment Ms. Kael’s incessant but special use of words many critics use a lot: “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—as well as her two most characteristic grammatical constructions: “so/that” or “such/that,” used not as a mode of explication or comparison (as in, e.g., he was so lonely that he wept), but as an entirely new hype connective between two unrelated or unformulated thoughts; and her unprecedented use, many times per page and to new purposes, of the mock rhetorical question and the question mark.

Because what is most striking is that she has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic. Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective—what amounts to a staff cinema critics’ branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. I do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. “Swallowing this movie,” one finds on page 147, “is an unnatural act.” On page 151, “his way of pissing on us.” On page 153, “a little gas from undigested Antonioni.” On page 158, “these constipated flourishes.” On page 182, “as forlornly romantic as Cyrano’s plume dipped in horse manure.” On page 226, “the same brand of sanctifying horse manure.” On page 467, “a new brand of pop manure.” On page 120, “flatulent seriousness.” On page 226, “flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.” On page 353, “gaseous naïveté.” And elsewhere, everywhere, “flatulent,” “gaseous,” “gasbag,” “makes you feel a little queasy,” “makes you gag a little,” “just a belch from the Nixon era,” “you can’t cut through the crap in her,” “plastic turds.” Of an actress, “She’s making love to herself”; of a screenwriter, “He’s turned in on himself; he’s diddling his own talent.” “It’s tumescent filmmaking.” “Drama and politics don’t climax together.” Sometimes, one has the illusion that these oral, anal, or just physical epithets have some meaning—“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat,” for instance, or “the film is an icebag.” But then: “Coma is like a prophylactic.” One thinks, How, how is it like a prophylactic? “It’s so cleanly made.” Or a metaphor with a sadistic note which defies, precisely, physical comprehension. “The movie has had a spinal tap.”

Gender, blah, blah, blah

Katherine Angel in the LA Review of Books

Good piece by Katherine Angel on the gender imbalance in our idea of serious, intellectual writing in the LA Review of Books

VIRGINIA WOOLF, after bumping into T. S. Eliot early on in their acquaintance, wrote: “I kept myself from being submerged, though feeling the waters rise once or twice. I mean by this that he completely neglected my claims to be a writer, and had I been meek, I suppose I should have gone under.”

She wasn’t meek, she didn’t go under — then — and they eventually became close. Germaine Greer, in 1971, at a debate in New York filmed in Town Bloody Hall, spoke of “having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination,” a “most privileged being,” the male artist. The battle is internal, a battle inside herself to refuse the primacy of the male artist — a refusal necessary in the very act of writing, for writing to be possible at all. But the battle is also external: to have one’s voice heard, and heard in the right way. Deborah Levy, in Things I Don’t Want to Know, writes that “even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”

It’s happened to me several times at a literary event — sometimes one at which I’m reading or speaking — that a kindly, affable chap, after regaling me with a long account of his next book, smiles generously and asks me what I do at Penguin, or how long I’ve been working for the venue. When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Bookswith 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.

It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it.

Writing — coming to writing — is a profound act of self-realization that can be as arduous and painful as it can be exhilarating. I try hard not to coalesce all men into one lumpen category, including those who doubtless have also overcome struggles, internal and external, to be where they are. Struggles are often invisible. But one need only look at the pages of our literary magazines to see that women’s writing has a wholly different status culturally — Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton notwithstanding. Our idea of serious, intellectual writing appears to be overwhelmingly male.


Seventies Throwback Fiction

From the new issue of n+1

Good piece by Nicholas Dames on nostalgia for the 1970s and historical pastiche, in the new issue of n+1: 

HISTORICAL PASTICHE IS ONE OF OUR MOST important art forms, cutting across all media. We come to know it best through what we might call “decade-ism,” the artistic practice of parceling out history in ten-year spans. There is a menu of decades to choose from, and an audience with sophisticated tastes in recent period detail waiting to sample the latest clever, self-aware tweaking of classic ingredients. That TV serial set in the Sixties? It’s as rich as it looks, but the bitter aftertaste tells you the chef is sending up the clichés. Perhaps you’d prefer instead something from the Fifties (meaty, starchy) or, if you need something lighter, the Eighties (faintly metallic, a bit too sweet)? It doesn’t matter that these are simulacra. That knowingness only results in a finer appreciation for the precision and flair with which the results are prepared.

Not everything on the menu has been craved, though. The Seventies, that ragged decade, tends to be fodder for easy comedy. The details that attach to it — the polyester-and-feathered-hair-and-Moog-synthesizer aura — haven’t seemed ripe for mythic reinvention or idealizing treatment, more because of their banality than their unattractiveness. Images from the Seventies seem like meaningless citations without any larger significance, funny only because of their weird hollow particularity. Wasn’t the decade a dead end? Aren’t its details purely hermetic and self-regarding, artifacts from a time capsule no one would have intentionally preserved? Who would want to revisit that? Even Fredric Jameson, anatomist of our nostalgias, once commented that the specificity of the Seventies was its lack of specificity (ah, dialectical criticism! — one might almost think it an artifact of the very time it diagnoses). You can have a sincere or ironic taste for that trashy style, but you can’t pretend that anything world-historical gave that taste its alibi.

Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity. That’s what pastiche does: it supplies styles for a market that craves novelty, even the refurbished kind. But the recent burst of fictional resurrections of the Seventies — the most acclaimed novels of recent years among them — doesn’t just represent the establishment of a new consumer market. The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed. In a bid to transcend our knowing cynicism, as well as the shabby reputation the Seventies have had, these stories hold up that moment for complicated admiration and longing. No small melancholy attends that task of historical recovery. Few people, Flaubert remarked to a friend after writing Salammbô, could guess how sad one had to be to want to resuscitate Carthage. How sad does one have to be to want to resuscitate the era of stagflation?

Here is the territory the novels evoke: a mythic late summer, spacious, unsupervised, a little druggy, a little restless, hedged only by the feeling that everything is about to end. The actual location varies. It could be an upstate New York commune, a legacy of 1968, finding itself a victim of its own success (Arcadia); it could be a college campus in Rhode Island, a quiet refuge from Indian political turmoil (The Lowland); it could be a duplex community in Roanoke, Virginia, a turnout on the highway of downward mobility (Sister Golden Hair); it could be SoHo as the artists first move in (The Flamethrowers) or a Queens apartment complex as the immigrants start to move out (Dissident Gardens); it could even, in a slightly more literal version, be a Massachusetts summer arts camp (The Interestings). These are temporary, ramshackle utopias; no one ever quite gets over them. They are all, strikingly, collectives of one kind or another. Communal mourning saturates these stories: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies gives us a literal funeral, where college friends grieve over a dead friend and their mid-Seventies college days — but none of these novels is ever very far from a feeling that a group is coming or has come to an end. This feeling can take the form of wistfulness or, in the case of the professor of “Nixonology” who narrates A. M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven?, a barely respectable obsession. Put it in the terms of the tag-line leading in to one of the decade’s most famous guitar riffs: close your eyes and it slips away.

This can all seem very archetypal, just a middle-aged generation mourning its youth. But what’s being mourned is even smaller and sharper than a decade: the post-OPEC-embargo, pre-Iran-hostage-crisis détente years on the American scene, as encapsulated in some landscapes that, however topographically different, share a family resemblance. Passive and wide-eyed protagonists, without obvious talents other than their sensitivity, drift through a world where grandiose hopes — for liberation or equality or world peace — are receding, but seem perhaps more realizable in the wash of their retreat. It’s not a moment to which any piety is owed: it’s “a world of fuckers,” as Meg Wolitzer’s teenagers see it; “a Ponzi scheme of herpes and divorce,” as one of Jonathan Lethem’s disillusioned ranters puts it. But there was space and time, we’re told. “We felt like we could play around,” one of Rush’s mourners recalls. It’s not that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive — more that it wasn’t all that bad to laze around in that late afternoon. Not much to miss, it seems; why might we miss it now?


Plastic Words at Raven Row

13 December 2014 to 30 January 2015

Exciting line-up of events launching next week at Raven Row, including a talk chaired by future Fitzcarraldo Editions author Brian Dillon on 16 December, with Tom McCarthy, McKenzie Wark and Janice Kerbel, on ‘Artists, Writing and Literature’. Another one to look forward to is Helen DeWitt, Chris Kraus and  Jeremy Akerman on 15 January ‘about the forms of publication best suited to writing in an expanded field’. The full programme is available on the Raven Row website.

Organised by John Douglas Millar, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams.

Raven Row plays host for six weeks to a series of public events that mine the contested space between contemporary literature and art.

Taking this space as a starting point, the participants – including leading writers, visual and performance artists – reflect on the possible overlaps, parallels, tangents and interferences between some of today’s most adventurous forms of writing and art making. The variety of formats reflects the diversity of the contributors, spanning readings, performances, panel discussions and publishing experiments.

A companion display entitled Marginalia with artworks by Eleanor Antin, Isidore Isou, John Murphy and Philippe Thomas, curated by Antony Hudek, will be on view during events and upon request.

At each event, the pop-up bookshop Luminous Books will present a selection of titles written by and related to the speakers in Plastic Words. For the final event in the series, Luminous Books will join forces with Publication Studio for its first London appearance.

All events are free. Except for the opening event, reservations are encouraged. Please click on the links to the events for more information.

Fitz Carraldo Editions