Eighty years ago this summer, when San Francisco still thrived on the sea trade, the streets of the city teemed with men on strike. Fed up with humiliating working conditions, the longshoremen had called for a halt to labor on the docks. They rallied in public spaces, crammed into the Civic Center, and organized a march down Market Street. In early July, things quickly turned violent. The police cracked down, attacking the unarmed protestors. On a day that became known as “Bloody Thursday,” two strikers were shot and killed, as was one bystander, and hundreds more were hospitalized or injured. Journalists documented the violence, and the city shut down.
This week’s story, “Motherlode,” is a change in tone from some of your recent fiction. What led you to adopt this particular voice?
I knew that the story required some narrative jumps that would have been implausible were it written in conventional photorealism; the hardboiled tone allows for those. And the voice gave rise to some playfulness on my part, which is always helpful.
There’s something cinematic about the story: it’s like the Coen brothers meets “Nebraska.” Was that movie quality intentional? Do your stories play themselves out visually as you’re writing?
I’m not aware of that, beyond having called on some of the brisker, even arbitrary narrative conventions of film, though I know both of these references and recall the pleasure of their hurtling story lines. I do come to think of my stories visually, at least once I start and can “see.” I have a not fully understood relationship to vision—a lifelong terror of blindness, a preoccupation with glasses, binoculars, telescopes. There is a moment for me, in any story, when idea becomes appearance, and the medium is language.
In this month’s Texas Monthly, Pamela Colloff writes about a woman named Michelle Lyons, who witnessed two hundred and seventy-eight executions in Texas, first as a prison reporter for the Huntsville Item, and then as a public-relations representative for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. At first, Lyons was unbothered by the task—she believed that the death penalty was sometimes necessary, and she felt that she was filling an important role by making the executions a matter of public record. But over the years the job began to wear on her. At times, she kept a diary, recording observations and feelings that weren’t conveyed in her original reports. Her story reveals the moral implications and the psychological toll of the death penalty—even on the law-enforcement personnel who implement it.
Admissions Department MacDowell Colony 100 High Street Peterborough, NH 03458
Dear Admissions Department,
I am writing this letter for the purpose of recommending Jason Fitger for a residency at your esteemed Colony. I concede that Fitger is an unconventional candidate for MacDowell’s renowned largesse, being, as he is, a fictional character. But please, hear me out. His admission to your verdant and placid sanctuary of creation is a matter of some urgency, and it may just save his miserable life. A copious accounting of the grim details of Fitger’s current situation are to be found in Julie Schumacher’s new novel, “Dear Committee Members,” a copy of which I am enclosing with this letter. Fully aware of the unrelenting demands placed upon your time and attention, I will render for you a summary of Fitger’s plight as chronicled in Schumacher’s sleek and vastly entertaining book.
When the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Paris, in 1902, he was so unhappy that he wrote, “Sometimes I lean my head against the gate of the Luxembourg just to breathe in a little space, calmness, moonlight—but there, too, it’s the same leaden air, still heavy with the perfume of the too many flowers they have crowded into the borders.… The city is just too vast and overburdened with melancholy.” Rilke’s mentor, the sculptor Rodin, advised the twenty-six-year-old that “you must choose one or the other, happiness or art.” But Rilke found Paris to be “bloated” with an “impatience to possess life immediately,” while he believed the real impulse of life was “calm, immense, elemental.” In this highly strung state, he considered Paris foreign, hostile, oppressive, febrile, and “close to death.” Rodin’s advice was to “work, nothing but work.”
The critic Ruth Graham recently published an essay called “Against YA,” on Slate, that caused a brouhaha; the piece received more than three thousand comments and inspired dozens of counter-essays. The magnitude of this response underlines the ubiquity—and the effectiveness—of its title formulation, “Against [X].” In recent years, there has been an “Against [X]” epidemic: against young-adult literature, against interpretation, against method, against theory, against epistemology, against happiness, against transparency, against ambience, against heterosexuality, against love, against exercise, etc. The form announces a polemic—probably a cranky one, and very likely an unfair one. But an essay with such a title has inoculated itself against the criticism of being too polemical or tendentious—after all, did you read the title? Caveat lector!
“How could anyone be against transparency?” Lawrence Lessig asks, ingenuously, in his 2009 essay “Against Transparency,” in The New Republic. “Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.” Lessig neatly articulates the customary logic of “Against [X]”: How could anyone be against X? It seems so good, so redoubtable, yet I really am against X! The polemic generally goes on, responsibly and often a bit boringly, to enumerate any number of qualifications. In this case: “There is no questioning the good that transparency creates in a wide range of contexts.” Not quite as lively as the title “Against Transparency” promises, is it? “Against [X]” is a symptom of a liberal culture’s longing to escape its own strictures; it’s the desire of thoughtful and nuanced people to shed their inhibitions and issue fearsome dicta. We feel that we must be fair and evenhanded in our prose, but in our titles we can fly a pirate’s flag.
This month on the Poetry Podcast, Lucie Brock-Broido reads “Recurring Awakening,” by Franz Wright. The poem, an elegy, exemplifies Wright’s tendency to infuse solemn subjects with electrifying imagery and language.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com
On Being Seen: An Interview with Claudia Rankine from Ferguson
Remembering 1914: Dulce Et Decorum Est
Poetry Podcast: Jennifer Michael Hecht Reads Lucie Brock-Broido
Biologists talk of pre-adapted systems: things used for purposes other than the ones they evolved for. The middle-ear bones in mammals, for example, have their origins in the reptilian jaw. A more obvious example is the mouth. Our tongues and teeth evolved as a way to take foods into the body. At some later point, the existing structure was co-opted for a new task, the expulsion of words out into the world.
The old injunction “Don’t talk with your mouth full” is based on the presumption that, however multifunctional a mouth may be, it should only perform one job at a time. Humans have found a way around this limitation in the form of food writing. When we read one of the twenty-four thousand cookbooks published annually, we are indulging in the exquisite pleasure of combining the two functions: food and language mixed together.
In “The Referees,” your story in this week’s issue, a man named Rob is trying to rent an apartment in a co-op building. However, he’s having trouble getting the reference letters that the co-op board requires. Is there a particularly New York way in which real estate and self-worth are entwined? Is the message of this story, finally, “leave New York”?
The New York real-estate market is a realm of evil. Just as the term “business ethics” refers to the commercial world’s exemption from normal ideas of right and wrong, persons involved in New York real-estate transactions are subject to a weird regime of immorality, or amorality. To successfully deal in New York property—to rent or buy or remortgage—is, apparently, a question of making sure that your defrauding and screwing of the other guy more is more efficient than his hoodwinking and double-crossing of you. How this ties into the question of self-worth is interesting: bourgeois hysteria is undoubtedly a powerful factor in all of this. I’m not sure what my story’s message is, but I would certainly urge people to leave New York. That might bring down home prices for the rest of us.
Is this the moment to note that more than fifty thousand New Yorkers are now homeless?
Over the past month, we’ve been sharing collections of classic stories from the archive of The New Yorker, including some of our favorite Profiles, love stories, and theatre pieces. Now we turn to comedy, with a collection of seven classic articles about comedians, exploring everything from the boundary-pushing creativity of the comic mind to the powerful impact of personal loss on a comedian’s work.
In the two weeks since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Langston Hughes’s 1938 poem “Let America Be America Again” has been viewed tens of thousands of times on Poets.org, the Web site affiliated with the Academy of American Poets. Hughes, one of the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance and a prime representative of that movement’s cosmopolitan humanism, was born in 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, a town near the border with Oklahoma. The following year, Thomas Gilyard, a black “tramp” who had been arrested and charged with murdering a policeman, was dragged from the Joplin jailhouse by a white mob wielding sledgehammers and a battering ram, and hanged, to cheers, from a nearby telegraph pole. The mob then swept through the town, driving black residents from their homes and looting and burning the empty houses. A few weeks later, according to one report, those who dared to return “ordered a law and order league and pledged their cooperation with the officers to drive from the state all bad characters”—not of the kind who had done the killing but of the kind who had been killed.
I was a twelve-year-old home-schooler, hungry for friends, when my grandmother bought a one-way ticket to stay with us in Texas.
“So!” Nana said, as she clapped her hands after a round of hugs at baggage claim. “Let’s go home!”
“What about your bags?” I asked.
Nana pulled a worried, contemplative face.
“I forgot to bring anything,” she concluded, just before her familiar plaid suitcases scraped down the carrousel behind her.
The summer before, a neurologist had diagnosed Nana with probable Alzheimer’s disease, but with a family history like hers—both of her parents’ lives had faded out in a fog of dementia—that “probable” seemed unnecessary. My grandmother’s forgetfulness that autumn was alarming. Often she would panic at the wrinkled stranger in the mirror and ask us how old she was. “No!” she would reply, aghast, when we told her. She sometimes forgot that my mother was her daughter, and she inquired why I called her Nana. “It’s just what I call people I love,” I told her, and she gave me a long hug, a wet kiss on the forehead. There was a new effusiveness to her affection.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com
The Good News About Alzheimer’s Disease
Patricia Marx Starts from Happy
August Book Club: “Stone Arabia”
Then the bus began driving into clouds, and between one cloud and the next we caught glimpses of the town below. It was suppertime and the town was a constellation of yellow points. We arrived thirty minutes after leaving that town, which was called Leuk. The train to Leuk had come in from Visp, the train from Visp had come from Bern, and the train before that was from Zurich, from which I had started out in the afternoon. Three trains, a bus, and a short stroll, all of it through beautiful country, and then we reached Leukerbad in darkness. So Leukerbad, not far in terms of absolute distance, was not all that easy to get to. August 2, 2014: it was James Baldwin’s birthday. Were he alive, he would be turning ninety. He is one of those people just on the cusp of escaping the contemporary and slipping into the historical—John Coltrane would have turned eighty-eight this year; Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned eighty-five—people who could still be with us but who feel, at times, very far away, as though they lived centuries ago.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com
Out Loud: Nathan Heller and Joshua Rothman on Élite Colleges
Cover Story: Eric Drooker’s “Ferguson, Missouri”
Eleven Posts You May Have Missed This Week
The mortal intricacies of the surgical theatre and the laboratory work on which it depends are the centerpiece of Steven Soderbergh’s TV series “The Knick,” set in a downtown Manhattan hospital in 1900. Soderbergh (who does his own camera work) films it thrillingly, but his greatest inspirations unfold the details—intellectual and physical, analytical and gory—of medical practice. Closely bound to the show’s unstinting view of scientific progress is the bureaucratic wrangling—in effect, the backstage business—that makes stunning medical productions possible. Clearly, Soderbergh and the screenwriters, Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, and Steven Katz, did their historical research. But, for a real-life, “Knick”-like account of the grim spectrum of sickness in turn-of-the-century New York that pierces the screen of dramatic artifice and shows the sort of visionary practicality that it took to change things, there’s a very worthwhile read: “Fighting for Life,” the 1939 autobiography by S. Josephine Baker (1873-1945), which was reissued last year by New York Review of Books Classics.
Your story in this week’s issue, “One Saturday Morning,” details a day in the life of a ten-year-old girl in Britain in the nineteen-sixties. Is it set, more or less, in the landscape of your own childhood?
It is. This is more or less the house I lived in, when I was Carrie’s age. In fact, more rather than less. So many details I’ve transcribed from memory—the table-tennis table brought from my father’s school; the yellow velvet curtains; the narrow little park across the road, where my brother played cricket; the white-painted balcony, where my mother grew flowers. My brother really used to chant that line:“the leaden sky promised an early fall of snow.”As that time recedes away into the deep past, all these ordinary details begin to seem momentous and mysterious. There’s an intimation that Carrie has, when she touches the miscellany of items on her mother’s dressing table. It’s as if something ghostly had brushed against her—the ghost of her future self, for whom this everyday life will be irrecoverable, except in memory. Of course, now I’m beginning to forget which things are from memory and which things I’ve invented. Were those curtains really yellow? I don’t often draw on life quite so directly as this when I’m writing. It’s something I’ve done recently, just in a couple of stories about childhood in the nineteen-sixties. I felt while I was writing them like a ghost trespassing in my own past, touching things I left behind there.
Crime and the punishment that—sometimes—ensues have been rich fictional subjects since long before Dostoyevsky’s novel was serialized in a Russian journal in 1866. Why are writers drawn to the subject? Fiction explores the full spectrum of human emotions, and crime is virtually always driven by emotion, whether it’s anger, desire, jealousy, or despair. Prison stories, on the other hand, have less emotional range: there’s hopelessness, mostly, and the occasional flash of enlightenment or redemption. They lack, too, the narrative arc of crime stories; they begin, by definition, after the fact, in that last car of the train of cause-and-effect. The deed has been done (or, if the justice system has failed, not done), and what remains for the reader is a kind of cinema verité, a look at how the criminal holds up to the consequences, or how society holds up to its own strictures.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com
This Week in Fiction: Joseph O’Neill
This Week in Fiction: Tessa Hadley
New York City in The New Yorker
This weekend, the remains of Nat Nakasa, a black South African journalist who committed suicide in New York in 1965 at the age of twenty-eight, will be exhumed for a long-delayed return to his home country. Nakasa came to the United States, less than a year before his death, for a Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard. Because of his anti-apartheid writings, the South African government refused to issue him a passport and instead gave him an exit permit, meaning that once he left the country he could never return. When he first came to America, he was delighted to be in a place free of racism, but after some months here, and especially after a reporting trip to the South, he realized that he was severely disillusioned, which seems to have contributed to the dark mood of his final days. In the Times, Daniel Massey has written an account of the impressive achievements of Nakasa’s short life and the events leading to his tragic death.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com
Weekend Reading: A History of L.A. Palm Trees, Two Civil-War Families
Weekend Reading: Stories of Displacement
Weekend Reading: Umpires in Prayer, A Botanical Battle, and More
This is how much I liked Catherine Lacey’s début novel, “Nobody Is Ever Missing”: I read it over a summer weekend, mostly transfixed, earmarking nearly every other page to identify perceptions or turns of phrase I might wish to return to. The novel is an unlikely page-turner, since it takes place almost entirely in the narrator’s head, and it will not appeal to everyone, least of all to those who are interested in intricate plot development. Then again, even voracious readers read for amorphous and not easily articulated reasons, and this particular book satisfies all my inchoate readerly impulses—including the primary one of getting out of my own skin and into someone else’s—in a way that, say, Donna Tartt’s more explicitly pitched “The Goldfinch” decidedly does not.
The late historian and critic Tony Judt once described Europe before the First World War as “an intricate, interwoven tapestry of overlapping languages, religions, communities and nations.” After the period between 1914 and 1945, as a result of war, ethnic cleansing, and border drawing, a new, more stable Europe emerged, in which “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people.” Thirty million were uprooted and dispersed by Stalin and Hitler between 1939 and 1943, a process that was repeated after the defeat of the Axis armies. Germans, Poles, Balts, Croats, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Turks, and many others were shunted around the continent. The result was “a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before.”
Michel Gondry’s latest movie, “Mood Indigo,” now in theatres, is based on a book that most Americans have never heard of but that many French people love, by a French writer who loved America and its culture but never visited. His name was Boris Vian, and every time something is written about him in this country it comes with the same caveat (you don’t know him) accompanied by the same hope (but you should). A number of his works are readily available from TamTam Books, a small press in California, and the 1967 translation of “Mood Indigo,” by Vian’s friend Stanley Chapman, has just been reissued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux with an appealing cover the colors of a Tequila Sunrise. Still, ask for Boris Vian in the hippest bookstores in New York and you hear crickets.