Category: Criticism

West End Boy

Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik in the LRB
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Adam Shatz on Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of the Utøya massacre, in the London Review of Books:

Before he went on his mass killing spree in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik was a regular at the Palace Grill in Oslo West. He looked harmless: another blond man trying to chat up women at the bar. ‘He came across as someone with a business degree,’ one woman recalled, ‘one of those West End boys in very conservative clothes.’ Indeed he had tried his hand at business, though he’d never completed a degree, or much of anything else. And he was a West End boy, a diplomat’s son. Yet there was the book he said he was writing, a ‘masterwork’ in a ‘genre the world has never seen before’. He refused to say what it was about, only that it was inspired by ‘novels about knights from the Middle Ages’. He did little to hide his obsessions. One night in late 2010, he was at the Palace Grill when a local TV celebrity walked in. Breivik launched into a speech about the Muslim plot against Norway, and about the Knights Templar. The bouncers threw him out. On the street, he said to the celebrity: ‘In one year’s time, I’ll be three times as famous as you.’

This story appears in Aage Borchgrevink’s superb book, and it plays like a scene from a horror film because we know the barfly will make good on his promise. Breivik was hard at work on 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a 1518-page screed exposing the Muslim plot to conquer Christendom. In large part a compendium of extracts from counter-jihadist websites, 2083 was posted online on the day of the attacks under the name ‘Andrew Berwick’, one of Breivik’s several aliases. The signs of Europe’s creeping Islamisation were everywhere, he argued, from Bosnian independence to the spread of mosques in Oslo. Muslim men were having their way with European women, while declaring their own women off-limits to European men. Breivik and his fellow white Norwegians were ‘first-generation dhimmis’ – a term for non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule which, like most of his ideas, he’d found online – in what was fast becoming ‘Eurabia’. Worst of all, Europe’s ‘cultural Marxist’ elites had caved in, like a woman who would rather ‘be raped than … risk serious injuries while resisting’. Even the Lutheran Church – ‘priests in jeans who march for Palestine and churches that look like minimalist shopping centres’ – had surrendered. Fortunately, there were ‘knights’ like Breivik who had the courage to defend Europe’s honour.

2083 isn’t just a manifesto: it’s also the would-be inspirational memoir of a man who has rejected the ‘Sex and the City lifestyle’ in favour of his sacred duty. The leap from empty hedonism to murderous heroism is also a recurring theme in the biographies of the young men who leave Bradford, Hamburg, Paris and Oslo for Syria. As Borchgrevink writes, Breivik’s hatred of Islam didn’t prevent him from proposing a tactical alliance with al-Qaida against the liberal state he hated even more. The desires that motivated him scarcely differed from those of his jihadist enemies: revenge, adventure and fame.

Breivik was born in 1979. His parents never married, and separated before he was two; he was raised by his mother, a nurse, who turned out to be unstable and emotionally abusive. By the time he was four, the home had become so turbulent that the state welfare services recommended he be removed. But the recommendation was never acted on, and Breivik grew up hating his mother, whom he accused of ‘feminising’ him, and idolising the father he rarely saw. He was drawn to tough boys like his pal Rafik, the son of Pakistani immigrants who claimed to know members of the notorious ‘B Gang’ in Oslo East. Breivik was a ‘potato’, a white boy, but under Rafik’s tutelage he bought himself a pair of baggy trousers and learned to steal and speak what Borchgrevink calls ‘Kebab Norwegian’. He ‘bombed the city’ with his graffiti tag, Morg, inspired by a Marvel Comics villain. But the friendship with Rafik gradually unravelled, partly because Rafik and his cohort seemed to be a magnet for the white girls who rejected him. Breivik joined a ‘white pride’ gang, and even found himself a girlfriend – but then she dumped him for a Pakistani.

He didn’t do much better in his attempt to become a millionaire, though in his twenties he did make some money selling cheap mobile phone contracts and fake diplomas, mostly to immigrants. He joined the right-wing Progress Party, whose opposition to immigration and higher taxes chimed with his own resentments. But what appears to have transformed him was discovering the writings of Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen, a blogger who wrote under the name ‘Fjordman’. Fjordman’s online manifesto, Native Revolt: A European Declaration of Independence, gave meaning to Breivik’s failures by situating them in a global war between Christendom and Islam. Rafik, he realised, was no mere hoodlum: he was a secret jihadist. ‘The petty-criminal subculture of the 1990s was reborn as a religious conflict,’ in Borchgrevink’s words, and Breivik was now a knight in the war to save Europe.

Keen to make contact with his fellow knights, he introduced himself to Fjordman, who found him ‘as boring as a vacuum cleaner salesman’. He turned up at a pro-Israel meeting organised by the Friends of Document.no, a far-right website edited by Hans Rustad, a former soixante-huitard who claimed that Muslim men were using sex as a form of warfare, inflicting a ‘slow castration’ on Western men. Rustad felt ‘there were some inhibitions missing in [Breivik’s] head.’ No one with inhibitions would have wandered into Monrovia during the Liberian civil war, which is what Breivik did in 2002. He told friends that he was going to buy blood diamonds, but his real purpose was to pay his respects to Milorad Ulemek, known as the Dragon, an ultra-nationalist Serb who’d fought in the Special Operations Unit of the Serb army: the Serbs, in Breivik’s view, had been Europe’s front-line defenders in the battle with Islam, only to be cruelly abandoned in their hour of need. Nothing much came of these encounters, but he now felt himself to be part of a community. In 2006 he moved back in with his mother, so that he could contribute to right-wing websites, play video games and work on 2083. But he was afraid of becoming ‘a bitter old goat behind a computer’: ‘Convert your frustration and anger to motivation and resolve,’ he told himself. He began taking steroids, and dressing up in a red uniform covered in badges; his mother thought he’d gone ‘all Rambo’.

On the morning of 22 July 2011, Breivik uploaded his manifesto to his favourite websites, and emailed it to 1003 contacts in Europe and Israel. He’d timed the launch to coincide with the events he’d planned for later in the day: a bombing in central Oslo, followed by a strike on Utøya, an island 40 kilometres north of the city where the Labour Party Youth had their annual retreat. He’d been preparing the attack since 2002, he claimed when interrogated by the police. He had bought his Ruger rifle and Glock pistol legally; the rifle bore the inscription ‘Gungnir’, after Odin’s spear. He built the 950 kg bomb with fertiliser he’d purchased for a farm he set up in 2009 on land rented from elderly farmers north of Oslo. Five months before the massacre, a UN-directed anti-terror programme identified him as one of 41 Norwegians who had imported chemicals that could be used for fertiliser bombs, but the Norwegian security services didn’t investigate. They were worried about radical jihadists, not West End boys who lived with their mothers.

Tom McCarthy on Gravity’s Rainbow

In the New York Times
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Tom McCarthy reviews the audiobook edition of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon in the New York Times:

“Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon’s gargantuan parable of rocketry, sex and a whole bunch of other stuff, turned 41 this year — six years older than its author when it was first published. What happens when a novel whose scenes of coprophagia and pedophilia moved Pulitzer trustees to cancel the prize in 1974 (when Pynchon seemed poised to win) eases into middle-aged, canonical respectability? Well, for one thing, it gets an audiobook release. Since the mid-1980s, a George Guidall recording has been floating around, like some mythical lost rocket part — no one had heard it, but all Pynchon fans knew someone who knew someone who had — but in October a new version, authorized and rerecorded and burned onto 30 compact discs — hit the stands. How on earth, I wondered as I stripped the wrapper, is poor Mr. Guidall going to render the sudden outbreaks of crazed capitals, or librettos in which stoners with guitars pastiche Rossini, the instructions helpfully stating “(bubububoo[oo] oo [sung to opening of Beethoven 5th, with full band])”? He turns out to do it in a slow and deep-voiced manner, beneath whose calm avuncularity you can detect anxiety, even mania, bubbling but never quite erupting — although I could have sworn I heard him, in the silence at the end of CD 30, racing out the door to buy a year’s supply of those Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges the hero Slothrop sucks, or perhaps to check himself into the book’s White Visitation mental hospital.

The main benefit of Guidall’s superhuman effort may well be ergonomic. Unlike Grigori, the novel’s reflex-­conditioned octopus, a human reader has only two hands; removing the book as a physical object frees up one of these to palm through Steven Weisenburger’s “A ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ Companion” and the other to click around the many online glossaries to the text while listening. Such resources seem to me more than optional; only “Finnegans Wake” is more opaque, more reference-­saturated than Pynchon’s novel. And perhaps the benefits of audio end here. An old canard, reeled off incessantly by people who haven’t read “Finnegans Wake,” or at least haven’t understood it, holds that “you need to hear it spoken aloud in order to appreciate it.” This is nonsense: Joyce’s novel, wrapped around in silence, is all about legibility — inscriptions, codices, scattered scraps of paper in need of reassembly, exegesis or decoding. So it is with “Gravity’s Rainbow”: The book’s logic is entirely scriptural. Every surface in it is a parchment to be interpreted: ice-cracks form “graffiti . . . a legend to be deciphered”; raindrops splash in asterisks, inviting us “to look down at the bottom of the text of the day”; lit cigarettes trail “cursive writing”; even feces on the walls of sewers presents “patterns thick with meaning.” Its people, lying in rows in a hospital ward described as a “half-open file drawer of pain each bed a folder,” are legible as well, “poor human palimpsests” that doctors transcribe and — more sinisterly — rewrite. Slothrop’s ancestors, as Puritans, scanned the sky for messages, viewed all of nature as a ledger packed with data “behind which always, nearer or farther, was the numinous certainty of God.” In keeping with their sensibility, the narrative momentum thrusts both forward, toward inevitable (because predestined) final catastrophe and judgment and, simultaneously, backward, through histories encrypted into junkyards, light bulbs, even human hair, reverse-engineering cities into ruins, rooms to their “plan views” in order to lay bare the plans hatched in them, plans in whose web all current actors find themselves entangled. One character is tellingly urged, in a direct address by the narrator, to ponder a “wind tunnel” theory of history, through which tensor analysis might reveal “nodes, critical points,” turbulence-spots decisive in the shaping of all subsequent airflow, only now become apparent — then told, “Here’s a thought: Find a non-­dimensional coefficient for yourself.”

(…)

The Cult of Jeff Koons

Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books
Jeff Koons: Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988

‘The Koons retrospective is a multimillion-dollar vacuum,’ writes Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books, ‘but it is also a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die.’ A great piece on the triumph of the cult of Jeff Koons, written in response to the retrospective currently on at the Whitney Museum in New York: 

Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them. This is the last show that the Whitney will mount in its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue before moving to new quarters in the Meatpacking District, and Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, has come up with a parting shot so swaggeringly obnoxious that it can’t be ignored.

Anybody who has taken Modern Art 101 will be able to give you some general idea of how we arrived at the point where a ten-foot-high polychromed aluminum reproduction of a multicolored pile of Play-Doh holds center stage at the Whitney—and is hailed by Roberta Smith, one of the chief art critics at The New York Times, as “a new, almost certain masterpiece.” What we are seeing at the Whitney is the mainstreaming of Dadaism and in particular of the readymade, the ordinary and frequently mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp reimagined as art objects, including, early on, a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal.

Duchamp produced his first readymades roughly a hundred years ago. At the time they were seen by hardly anybody; they were the ultimate insider’s cool dude joke art. This was a joke that Duchamp presented deadpan, with the deliberateness of a man who very carefully weighed every move he made. He had already pursued a serious career as a painter; he had created a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913 with his Nude Descending a Staircase; and he would not have abandoned painting without cause. Duchamp felt there was too much of a mystique around art. Years later, he told Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t believe in [art] with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth.” The readymade was an act of supreme skepticism; at least that is what it was for Duchamp.

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist
Elizbaeth Harrower

Whatever you think about James Wood, he is one of the few people with enough clout that an article on the ‘forgotten’ novelist Elizabeth Harrower will get people interested in reading her. In this instance, the story of her ‘rediscovery’ happens to be a good one:

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”

Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”

Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.

Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.

Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”

RB and me: an education

Brian Dillon in the Dublin Review
Young Roland

Brian Dillon on ‘growing up’ with Roland Barthes, in the Dublin Review:

 1992

For a long time I sincerely believed I could not love a woman who was not well acquainted with Barthes’s writing. If this seems a bizarre criterion to apply to a prospective lover – all the more eccentric given my dismal prospects to start with – I think I can see now what I was hoping for. Theory in general, and my specific ambitions, had become a way of keeping the world at bay, an intellectual apparatus by which I thought to defuse potentially explosive emotional situations, or more accurately damp the slow-burning grief and general misery that I was unable to express. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps less clear is how much of desire and love and longing I’d also cathected into this stuff by my early twenties. It’s not that I simply wanted a lover who was super-smart and culturally cynical and much better read than I was; I wanted somebody infinitely sensitive and self-scrutinizing, also just as passive and debilitated as I was before the enigma of the Other. And this ideal relationship was obscurely related to central concepts or turns of thought and phrase in Barthes – a kind of abstracted perversity, lurid but nonviolent; a languid refusal of the role of sexual protagonist; a drifting between word and body, sex and Art, ideas and desire. I’d started to read Barthes as if his books, these works of ‘literary theory’, actually described a psychosexual utopia that was just out of reach. (It may be that this is exactly what they do describe.)

Such fantasies did not stop me from falling in love with people who had strictly no knowledge of or interest in the kind of books I was reading. And the ones who did had by no means taken things so much to heart. But like many an inarticulate young lover, I thought for a time that seduction was a matter of giving the right book to the right woman. In my case it was Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: a meditation on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther that catalogues the melancholic lover’s prized ‘image repertoire’ – the scene of waiting, the feeling of being dissolved in the presence of the loved being, the attraction of suicide – and thinly veils the author’s own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris in the 1970s. This gift was always a prelude to disaster. The first time, the girl in question – she was a French waitress, of all things – left the country within days and never returned. The second, I found the book a month later under the girl’s bed, bearing the distinct imprint of a Doc Marten boot. The unlucky third time, the book was my idea of a Valentine’s Day present, and we split up weeks later. We split up again two years after that, by which time she’d got round to reading A Lover’s Discourse and wishing she’d never met me. Advice to the young: this book is brilliant and cursed.

Chris Kraus on Kathy Acker

In The Believer
Kathy_Acker

If anyone has the credentials to write (well) about Kathy Acker, it’s Chris Kraus, taking the publication of I’m Very Into You as a starting point for a wider discussion of Acker’s life and work:

I’m Very Into You is a collection that includes 103 pages of emails that Acker and Ken Wark exchanged over seventeen days at the dawn of the internet era. Acker met Wark in Sydney during the summer of 1995, and the two had a brief but intense affair before she returned home to San Francisco. Wark, now a professor at the New School for Social Research and a renowned media theorist, was thirty-four when he met Acker (she was forty-eight). At the time, Wark was part of a Melbourne-based post-Marxist anarchist group that produced the political and cultural journal Arena. He had just published his first book, Virtual Geography, about the emergence of global media space and the transmission of world events as media spectacles. He was enjoying a precocious career as a national media commentator in Australia and advising government ministers on media access, while still living a kind of post-student life among artists and activists. He had boyfriends and girlfriends, often concurrently, and wondered about his identity, queerness and straightness, performance, butch/femme-ness, masculinity. Of course he’d read Acker. He’d been following her work since the ’80s.

The search for connection through sex is at the forefront of all of Acker’s writing. She was single for most of her life (and writing always from within her life, and around and beyond it). As passages from her novels show, on-tour flirtations and hookups and romances weren’t uncommon. While touring in the summer of 1995, something more compelling than a mere fling developed between her and Wark. His first email begins as a gracious note sent to a casual lover. He’d driven to work the next day in a daze; he’d enjoyed spending time with her and was starting to read the William S. Burroughs novel she’d talked about. But as he continues, he opens the door to something more complicated: “There are no words,” he writes. “I just want to say there are no words.… Bear with me. I’ll have something to say for myself sometime soon. When I remember who I thought I was in the first place. Even if I’ve been displaced a little from wherever that was.” She responds, delighted: through the exhaustion and jet lag of travel, “your message is changing the day… all the time there (in Sydney) that I didn’t know what was going on… what becomes/became present was how easy it is to be with you. Like: you are the one I want/wanted to talk to.”

In London, at the height of her fame, Acker had been involved in an increasingly maddening long-distance BDSM romance with a married journalist referred to as “the German” and “the reporter” in her 1990 novel, In Memoriam to Identity. “Being with him made me remember that I’ve always looked for my childhood,” she’d write to Wark. Still, his control of her, which began as sexual play, became increasingly total as he suspended contact for weeks and cut short their meetings. What began as a fulfilling and sexy relationship between her “bratty sub” and his “strict Dominant” evolved into a draining, old-fashioned affair between a distant and married straight man and his long-suffering mistress. As she’d write at the height of her correspondence with Wark, fearing their friendship might take a turn in that direction: “So. Regarding het shit. These games. To me, top/bottom is just stuff that happens in bed. Who fistfucks whom. Outside the bed, I do my work and you do yours. I fucking hate power games outside the bed and have no interest in playing them.”

 

The Resurgence of the Frankfurt School

Alex Ross on Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture
Adorno & Benjamin

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross argues that the Frankfurt School are ‘having a modest resurgence’ and that ‘in light of recent events … it may be time to unpack [their] texts again.’ 

If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.

The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.

Nobody’s Protest Novel

A critical perspective on Tao Lin's literary career thus far
Tao Lin

This is quite possibly the most in-depth critical analysis of Tao Lin’s work that exists. Written by Frank Guan for n+1‘s latest issue, it covers everything he’s ever written. Also, typically for an n+1 essay, it blends memoir with criticism:

Under pal, fluorescent lighting, I encountered “Tao Lin” for the first time in the computer lab of Potter Hall, the dormitory I was registered to live in for my senior year of college in Northern California, lasting from September 2008 to June 2009. I can’t be more precise than that about the time: it wasn’t an especially profound engagement, and the lab, unscheduled, open all the time to anyone who had a key, seemed as immemorial as the climate outside, just past the windows, not to mention I was reading an ephemeral source of news.

The Gawker article was half bemused and half dismissive; it was probably the one by Moe Tkacik posted on August 22, 2008, but read sometime later than that date. The point was that I learned of the existence of Tao Lin, a novelist selling shares of his not yet published—Gawker claimed it hadn’t yet been written—novel. I thought something neutrally along the lines of “Asian” and “Andy Warhol,” and didn’t hear or think about him for about the next five years.

It was a strange last year of school, a period of partial disembodiment and general, even multitracked, confusion; I spent most of my time on or near a futon in a graduate housing residence where my friend Ben Wang, pursuing a master’s in chemical engineering, and his girlfriend, Mariko Kotani, occupied a bedroom. I had known them since our freshman year, but they had graduated on time. Helplessly grateful for their hospitality, I failed to say so to them as often as I should have. I just hoped they understood, silently. Ben lent me his old laptop, a Dell, I think; I used it to watch Koreans expend enormous energies playing, live, professionally, and on competing teams, a real-time strategy computer game called Starcraft: Brood War. I also played Civilization III and, when Ben and Mariko were awake and interested, the World Tour version of Guitar Hero. I was in some classes, but none of the reading material, aside fromFrankenstein and certain lines by several marginal Victorian poets (“So far between my pleasures are and few”), was especially memorable.

Given my time at college, grad school seemed preposterous. The job market for my kind was laughable. In every way, I was exhausted. New York, perhaps? But media sometimes have overarching messages, and Gawker’s seemed to be, Don’t go to New York, ever; to hold out hope, I creatively misread this as, Don’t go to New York with nothing. I decided to finish my translations into English of a notorious French poet, then go to New York, where I would, “somehow,” I thought, get them published.

And I went home to my family’s countryside estate. It was almost like an old Eurasian novel—except by “countryside estate” I mean the cheapest house in the “estates” section of a subdivision of a white-flight suburb roughly fifteen miles northeast of Louisville, a house whose installments the family had only just paid off, its first one ever in America. Still, why not treat it like a novel, if only, like The Idiot, to skip time without explaining? Three years passed; I flew from Louisville to LaGuardia, with a changeover at Baltimore, in August 2012; if the Baudelaire had been published, don’t you think that I’d be telling you about it?

I met Tao Lin in person this past summer at a spacious Dumbo bookstore called the Powerhouse Arena, where an event to celebrate the launch of his new novel was being held. I hadn’t come because I’d heard more about him. A close friend of a new friend (they had both been interns at the same publishing house) of a friend (they had both attended Yale) had become an editor, edited Taipei: it was his event, his victory as well. I debated buying a copy and decided, curiously, that I would. When I offered Tao a black ballpoint pen to sign, he held up, in a wordless and, I thought, amusing way, the black marker he’d been using.

Five days later I referred to myself, in an email to a friend, as being “absurdly grateful” for the book. I told her that I planned to write about it. I typed that I was absolutely sure that no one could explain Taipei more thoroughly than me. The book possessed a firm and eerie tone, a tone predicated on a lucid knowledge of the difficulty of its own transmission, and there was warmth to it as well, albeit tenuous—warmth engaged in a quiet, violent struggle to emerge from lukewarmth. The book was difficult—not ostentatiously so, but in a necessary manner: it was, unmistakably, I felt, created by a human being not because he could afford to show it off to others, but because, in relation to himself, he couldn’t afford not to comprehend or to express: powerfully, elaborately, and succinctly, without vanity or malice, it said the things he had to, and it left.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim

A profile in the New York Times magazine
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One of the best essayists we have on one of the best writers of fiction we have in the New York Times Magazine:

Of the qualities that set Antrim apart from the group of writers he’s often casually lumped in with or excluded from — the Eugenides-­Franzen-Lethem-Means-Saunders-Wallace cluster of cerebral, white-male, Northern fiction makers born around 1960 — it may be this predilection for characters “not necessarily redeemed” that offers the neatest distinction. It’s not that those other writers don’t ever do evil characters or antiheroes or that they all write tidy, hopeful plots. It’s not even that Antrim’s­ characters are beyond the pale in their badness, in a Cormac McCarthy manner — they aren’t psychopathic (except insofar as being human may involve being a little bit psychopathic). It’s more the case that Antrim’s fictional universe is different. It doesn’t bend toward justice, not even the kind that knows there is none but sort of hopes art can provide absolution. His universe bends — it is defi­nitely bent — but always toward greater absurdity (in both funny and frightening guises).

Some critics have lamented over the years that his characters don’t really “change,” but they do; it’s just that they devolve, they go mad. Mr. Robinson, man and book, certainly does, in a closing passage that is both unprintable by this magazine and unwritable by any other novelist I’ve heard of, except maybe the Mississippi writer Barry Hannah in his early-1980s “Ray” period. That echo calls to mind another thing dividing Antrim from his better-known peers, that he doesn’t really come from the North, despite having made his whole career there, living in Brooklyn in a small apartment he calls “a good place to be for now for 22 years,” where he reportedly gives unforget­table dinner parties (great cooking, great stereo) throughout which everyone sits on the floor. He works in a spartan room with a plain, black desk and shelves of books, papers on the wall and a two-volume O.E.D. (the pretty one, with the little drawer for the magnifying glass).

Medicine and its Metaphors

An extract from Eula Biss's On Immunity
On Immunity

An extract from Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in February 2015, appears in Guernica this month:

Whenever I complained of a sore throat as a child, my father would press his fingers gently behind my jawbone, checking for swollen lymph nodes. “I think you’re going to be okay,” he would say upon completing his examination. This was his verdict, too, when I called him from college, miserably ill with what he identified as “probably influenza.” I asked him if there was anything I could do and he suggested, to my disappointment, drinking plenty of fluids. Then he recommended his grandmother’s prescription for a bad cold—buttered toast dipped in warm milk. He described the way the butter floated on the surface of the milk and how comforting he found his grandmother’s care. I wanted to know if there was some sort of medicine I could take, but what I needed, my father understood, was comfort. As an adult, I still never cease to feel a little surprise when a doctor reaches behind my jawbone to check for swollen nodes. I associate the tenderness of that gesture with my father’s care.

Paternalism has fallen out of favor in medicine, just as the approach to fathering that depends on absolute authority no longer dominates parenting. But how we should care for other people remains a question. In his discussion of efforts to control childhood obesity, the philosopher Michael Merry defines paternalism as “interference with the liberty of another for the purposes of promoting some good or preventing some harm.” This type of paternalism, he notes, is reflected in traffic laws, gun control, and environmental regulations. These are limits to liberty, even if they are benevolent. Interfering with the parenting of obese children, he argues, is not necessarily benevolent. There is risk in assigning risk. Children who are already stigmatized for their body type are further targeted. And families who are identified as “at risk” for obesity become at risk to discriminatory oversight. The prevention of risk, Merry observes, is often used to justify a coercive use of power.

 

Fitz Carraldo Editions