“Sell Out,” by Simon Rich
Appeared in the New Yorker under Shouts and Murmurs, January 28th, 2013 (online here)
“Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues. Poetry is a disinterested use of words: it does not address a reader directly. […] It is not only tradition that impels a poet to invoke a Muse and protest that his utterance is involuntary. Nor is it strained wit that causes Mr. MacLeish, in his famous ‘Ars Poetica,’ to apply the words ‘mute,’ ‘dumb,’ and ‘wordless’ to a poem. The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard.”
—Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (found via this)
On the other hand, to the extent that criticism is an art in itself, criticism too is dumb.
“The Burrow” (“Der Bau”), by Franz Kafka
First published posthumously in 1931, with the first English translation coming out in 1933; the Muirs’ translation is online here
Maybe it’s because I was in a bad mood, but earlier today, reading Michael Hofmann’s translation, I felt as though the narrator of “The Burrow” were my only friend.
“Agnes of Iowa,” by Lorrie Moore
Appeared in Granta 54: Best of Young American Novelists, June 20th, 1996 (online here)
I like the use of repetition here:
Over the next six years she and Joe tried to have a baby, but one night at dinner, looking at each other in a lonely way over the meat loaf, they realized with a shock that they probably never would. Nonetheless they still tried, vandalizing what romance was left in their marriage.
‘Honey,’ she would whisper at night when he was reading under the reading lamp, and she had already put her book away and curled toward him, wanting to place the red scarf over the lampshade but knowing it would annoy him and so not doing it. ‘Do you want to make love? It would be a good time of month.’
And Joe would groan. Or he would yawn. Or he would already be asleep. Once, after a long hard day, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I’m just not in the mood.’
She grew exasperated. ‘You think I’m in the mood?’ she said. ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do.’ He looked at her in a disgusted way, and it was two weeks after that they had the identical sad dawning over the meat loaf.
My instinct would have been to avoid repeating the meat loaf line, and I would have missed something: the sadness of the moment coming back sadder the second time.
“‘Of course I hate my name Nikolay.’
“‘It’s so trivial, so ordinary.’
“‘You are thirteen?’ asked Alyosha.
“‘No, fourteen—that is, I shall be fourteen very soon, in a fortnight. I’ll confess one weakness of mine, Karamazov, just to you, since it’s our first meeting, so that you may understand my character at once. I hate being asked my age, more than that … and in fact … there’s a libelous story going about me, that last week I played robbers with the preparatory boys. It’s a fact that I did play with them, but it’s perfect libel to say I did it for my own amusement. I have reasons for believing that you’ve heard the story; but I wasn’t playing for my own amusement, it was for the sake of the children, because they couldn’t think of anything to do by themselves.'”
—The Brothers Karamazov, as translated by Constance Garnett
(A particular version of) “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” by David Foster Wallace
Funny, but it suffers from comparison to “B.I. #20” and other more intense stories.
#42 (bathroom attendant) and #48 (chicken-sexing, finger flexion) are standouts.
Most of these stories are about men’s hostility towards women, which makes the ones that aren’t seem out of place.
“It Was a Great Marvel that He Was in the Father without Knowing Him (I),” by David Foster Wallace
First appeared in the Iowa Review 24.3 (fall 1994), online here; later part of Infinite Jest
A little less than five and a half pages in the journal; roughly 1829 words
This stands alone well despite the weird jumble of Infinite Jest plot points (including the unexplained use of Subsidized Time). The allegation that Avril is drugging Hal’s food fits in neatly with Hal’s general demeanor, though the mention of the cartridge in Himself’s head doesn’t make sense without more about his film career. It’s possible that if I were coming to this piece without any knowledge of the novel at all, the drugging would tip me off that Himself is telling the truth about everything, but in that case his ravings would remain mostly opaque.
Apparently Wallace originally put this scene at the beginning of the book. The scene that replaced it is much more apt.
“Phallectomy” is misspelled and the plural of “shaman” isn’t “shamen.” There could be some convoluted reason for these mistakes but I suspect it’s just that nobody spell-checks David Foster Wallace.
“I went from being a liberal Peace Corps-type Democrat to a raging, maniacal lefty.”
—one of the volunteers for Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 (Freedom Summer, Bruce Watson, 2010)
When you have actual contact with people affected by civil rights, can you help becoming a lefty? I ask this rhetorically.
“I’m standing here in front of this 1920s bungalow in LA. If you just describe the physicality of the place, you’re only getting a fraction of the truth, which is that if you went back to 1946 there was some dude standing here in a fedora who’s now dead. That’s as true as the fact that there’s a lawn chair sitting here in front of me. To give a story broader shoulders, you have to sometimes push off into the supernatural or the sci-fi, not as a way of avoiding reality, but of accommodating it correctly.”
—George Saunders (x)