Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

The Endless Summer of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

Sunday, October 26th, 2014


Well, this blew me away. A begetter named Adam Bertocci has seized a single generative poem — Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 — and fractured and refashioned it into a brilliant series of 22 poetic exercises. Reading these pieces is like listening to an eclectic jazz performer spin variations on a theme, or like viewing a roomful of works by a disciplined cubist painter.

Yet again, Shakespeare’s “this” gives life to thee.

The one piece of Bertocci’s I’d like someone to press into further adaptation — into song — is this ditty:


Like summer,
But more so, your temperate way,
Like summer.
You will not fade nor discolor,
In lines that your beauty convey
You shine like the fires of day,
Like summer.


“Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe: Exclamation! Points! Every! Where!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012



The other day I began to read Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood. Things were going fine until page 3. That’s where I came upon a physical description of a woman named Mac, wife of the editor of a Miami newspaper. Mac, the overwrought Wolfe urgently wants the reader to understand, is stunning. And so we read words, words, and more words that establish the proposition that Mac is stunning. Then, redundantly, Wolfe decides to tells us in no uncertain terms that Mac is . . . “stunning.” Finally, since Wolfe is not a man to let go of the obvious, he appends to the word “stunning” the filigree of an exclamation point:


Yes, a wee thing, this punctuation mark … (!)  Like the falling of a small drop of rain.

But, dear reader, more drops fall. As when the swollen South Fork Dam collapsed, what follows is a veritable Johnstown flood of exclamation marks clotting the prose. Exclamation marks are pinned, wantonly, on utterances, thoughts, descriptions, and proper names — all without sense or grace.



How bad does this get?

Below, culled from pages 3 to 35 of Back to Blood, is every instance in which Wolfe felt an exclamation point was, somehow, appropriate. This list records the words or the word phrases that immediately precede the mark. In some instances, where it’s needed to convey the subject Wolfe wants emphatically to express, I’ve included the whole sentence.


*     *     *


Absolutely gorgeous, this big girl of his!


This was the chance!

This was the crack in the wall of words he was waiting for!

An opening!

Never mind!

“Attractive” barely began to describe what he felt!

Such nice tender long legs the two girls had!

Perfect little cupcake bottoms … for him!

And that was obviously what they wanted!


Oh, ineffable dirty girls!

Oh, ineffable Latin dirty girls!

An ordinary conversational voice!

The spell was broken!

Perfect little cupcakes!

Their short short-shorts!

Short short short-shorts!





Up on golden Lucite thrones!

Well, you are!

Good subject!


Get up!

Let’s go!

On the sand!

Now, that was an accomplishment!



Even if I wanted him to!

Jesus Christ, those lights are bright!

Brake light on the back window!

A big black thing — huge!

Godalmighty! — it was a white Ferrari 403!

A Ferrari 403!

That’s a $275,000 car!

Why, that bitch!

That brazen little bitch!


Look at her!

You stupid bitch!



Both of you! Stop!

Go to hell, bitch!

Why can’t they just stop!



Rude bitch!

But Please, God!

God knows they’ve got the money!

Oh, yes!


Everybody … all of them … it’s back to blood!

A leaning pool!

Blond hair! — and blue eyes!

The blond ones! — with blue eyes!

As far as SMACK that goes!

Pumping iron!

That’ll do the trick!






That day!


Wait a minute!

The “eyes”!

So dismissive!

Such a rebuke!

Impudent and a half!

Straight out!

The anger he felt!

If only he had added a “Sarge”!

He’s still a sergeant!

Blown out of the water!


Throw in a Sarge right now!

Sarge and Sarge!

Jesus Christ!

He dares say!

Most revered figure in Cuban history!

The filth right in the face!

And this is not Marti’s birthday!

Even with that!


Holy shit!

Up there!


It would take a genius to catch on!

But get hold of yourself!

Expelled from the force!


Kicked out!

Biscayne Bay!

He’d be finished!

Magdalena, too!


Eighty-fucking-two feet!

The man on the mast!

Up on top of the forward mast!

He’s up as high as the tontos on the bridge!

He did it!

He did it!

With the fluid power of a tiger he did it!

Slid it!

Slid a sliding door open!

Without fucking up!

Christ it was hot out there on the deck!



Miami summer sun!







Biscayne Bay!

A regular rubber room, this deck was!

Girls — all but stark naked!

Wild blond hair!

Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis!

Almighty God, I beseech thee, don’t let me … fuck up!

*     *     *

That prayer reaches the reader at page 35.

It’s hard for me to express, in my own words, the feeling that wells up inside me when I realize another 669 pages stand between me and the final exclamation on the novel’s final page.

So, to express the moment, let me borrow an exclamation from Mr. Tom . . . and at the same time pay homage to Mr. Bill.

Let me shout out my feelings thus:

Ohhhh Nnnnnnooooooooooooo!!!

*     *     *


1.  If my audit of pages 3-35 missed some exclamation marks, please forgive me. Or better still, thank me.

2.  [Spoiler Alert] The novel’s final exclamation, intended to send the reader off with a grin: “That’s … so … wonderful!

3.  A tip of the hat to James Wood whose dissection of Back to Blood in this week’s The New Yorker includes a couple of remarks about Wolfe’s overuse of exclamation marks. Wood refers to them as “the blurting, Tourette’s-like exclamations” and notes how Wolfe’s excitability works counter to the individualization of his characters: “In the regime of the enforced exclamation mark, everyone is equal.”


A rare sighting at The New Yorker

Sunday, September 30th, 2012


A magazine I cherish is The New Yorker.

Wait, let me rephrase that: The New Yorker is a magazine I read each and every week cherishly.

Better put, no?

The New Yorker has been dubbed “the most meticulously edited magazine in the world.” Articles, paragraphs, sentences, words — all are filtered clean by a cadre of fact-checkers, copy-editors and proof-readers. One of its editors recently boasted:  at The New Yorker “every quote, every detail, every attribution, every everything is checked for accuracy.”

So don’t expect to find the word cherishly in its pages.

Is it any wonder that for many readers the hunt for typos in The New Yorker has become something of a sport, nay, obsession? Examples of these hunters — including a few proudly displaying their trophies — can be found here (“the other night I found a typo in The New Yorker“), here (“stunned to find a typo”), here (“this week’s New Yorker has a shockingly obvious misspelling/typo”), here (“I have discovered typos in The New Yorker), here (“there are now typos in The New Yorker“), here (a tweet about a Saturday night well spent “looking for typos in The New Yorker”) and here (“…extra credit for catching typos in The New Yorker“).

Can I jump in here?

Today, while reading Ian Parker’s profile of J.K. Rowling featured in the October 1, 2012 issue of the magazine, I came across this passage on page 62:



The same typo — Mr. Mosley’s surname erroneously offered up first as “Mosely” — appears in the online edition:



I did a Google search to see whether anyone else had bagged this catch and then bragged about it online before me. No results. My arms shot up in triumph! (Sorry, no photo).

Essayist Joseph Epstein, a seasoned questioner and answerer, had this to say on the subject of spotting typos:

“Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors—typos, in the trade term—especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much “see how the mighty have fallen” as “see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become.” Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day.”

Just so: I savor my finding of this error with cherish.


“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

Sunday, September 11th, 2011



Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is a well-wrought story of an American life. Its power will remind the reader of other durable works in the canon of American literature.

The book’s backwoods setting and the stoic philosophy of its characters have sympathetic ties to Hemingway’s early Nick Adams stories set in the Michigan woods. It’s laconic protagonist, Robert Grainier, is an heir to the solitary fate of men found in Jack London’s man-against-nature tales. Grainier is an uneducated man, a day laborer, and it is the hard work of living that Johnson attends to most sensitively. His interest in this common man is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s attention to the kindred spirits populating his short novels of the Depression era. As well, Johnson’s prose — simple, direct, unmannered — employs an an oft-used American style.

Yet there is nothing derivative, nothing imitative, nothing second-hand or second-rate, in “Train Dreams.” This is a stand-alone classic.

Here is a mystery: While the novella recounts a man’s life, the narrative structure Johnson adopts owes nothing to the usual forms that typically command the allegiance of the reader of life stories. The book does not take the form of a journey or an adventurous quest. It follows no easy arc that might help to confer some apparent purpose. Spoken words are few. Gainier’s taciturnity is matched by a mind unreflective, or at best only quietly reflective. How, then, does “Train Dreams” draw us in so close to an embrace that we feel its emotional force?

That’s a question to keep in mind when, a few years from now, you again pull this slim volume from the shelf or fire-up your e-reader . . . and settle in for a second reading experience.


1. There is a free audio excerpt of the first five pages (3 ½ minutes, as read by Will Patton) available online at the publisher’s website, here.

2. Among reviews in mainstream media outlets, James Wood’s high praise in The New Yorker (Sept. 5, 2011, pp. 80-81; online here [subscription required]) is worthwhile as it discusses how the book relates to Johnson’s other works. But be alert that Wood’s piece gives away much of the plot and broadcasts many of the book’s specific beauties which ought to be left as surprises. Wood writes not so much for the potential reader as for those interested in testing its themes after completing the book.

3. Many people are mentioning the captivating book cover illustration. It is a reproduction of a lithograph (produced in an edition of 250 impressions in 1942) by the American regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton. Two years later Benton reworked the image as a painting, reversing the direction of movement, adding color, and assigning to the new canvas the sentimental title, “Homeward Bound”:



A hearty debate could be launched among readers as to whether the black and white image of “The Race” appropriately conveys the theme of “Train Dreams.” Does the wild horse represent the essential character of Grainier? When asked to describe the inspiration for this print, Benton said it was a “common enough scene in the days of the steam engine” to see “horses so often run with the steam trains” (but by the 1940s and the advent of diesel engines the phenomenon had ceased). I think the cover illustration fascinates us because of the horse’s devotion to a quixotic pursuit fueled by an urge to outlast the devilish machine nipping at its tail. Is it fair to say a comparable emotion and a comparable pursuit characterized Grainier’s life?

4. Some reviews mention a version of this novella appeared previously. The question arises, Did Johnson make any changes? I was able to compare the text of the just-released book to the text found in the Summer 2002 edition of The Paris Review, at pages 250-312, where the story made its first appearance. The two versions track exactly, paragraph for paragraph. The only edits I spotted are insignificant: in Chapter 2, the original measurements “one-hundred-twelve-foot” and “sixty-foot-deep” have been replaced with their numerical equivalents, “112-foot” and “60-foot-deep”; and, also in Chapter 2, an originally all-caps statement, RIGHT REVEREND RISING ROCKIES!, has been replaced with its lower case equivalent, right reverend rising rockies!


What’s the Matter with Book Critics Today?

Saturday, January 8th, 2011


Over a decade ago the distinguished critic Jonathan Yardley, whose book reviews appear in the Washington Post, observed, “There is no such thing as a powerful book critic.”

That remains true today.

Though there is reason to lament this state of affairs, it is not the diminished cultural impact of book reviewers that worries me. Rather, what concerns me is an overall decline in the quality of book criticism appearing in mainstream media publications. There is still a sizable number of people who read book reviews, and we deserve better.

I’ve been monitoring newspaper and magazine critics’ reactions to “Bird Cloud,” Annie Proulx’s non-fiction book released earlier this week. I’m finding that a diseased strain of “reviewing” — a strain that first came to my attention last year around the time of the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom” — appears to be spreading.

I’m speaking of a mode of critical attack that exposes not so much the flaws of the book under review as the deficiencies of the book reviewer who indulges in its practice. This baleful approach is characterized by ad hominem attacks delivered in a voice that blends self-absorbed gusto with made-up grievance.

If this virus has a ground zero it might be an execrable “Freedom” review/profile from the pen of Jennie Yabroff, an article that Newsweek editors unwisely chose to publish last August as another marker in the decline and fall of that once vital periodical.

A month later the self-absorbed component of the style was placed center-stage in a review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Nemesis,” in The New York Times. In the piece, Leah Hager Cohen spends the first five paragraphs, a sizable chunk of the entire piece, talking about herself, her history, her touch points with Roth’s oeuvre, her moods, her equivocations, her journey. Yes, it’s all about me-me-me, before I go head-to-head with the author. This diversion into the self is “relevant,” she says. To her credit, she then goes on to say intelligent things about the book, judging it fairly on its merits.

Most of us who’ve reached middle age can sense when someone else has pre-judged a matter. I am especially concerned about reviews that signal the presence of prejudice.

One such stink bomb, a book review that adds to the mix an aggrieved whine and some tired preppy insults, landed in December. In an online review posted by The New Republic, Andrew Butterfield does a hatchet job on Steve (“lazy”) Martin’s novel, “An Object of Beauty.” Typical of Mr. Butterfield’s approach is the bloodless delivery of this calumny: “All [Martin] makes you feel is that your ignorance should arouse your envy—that you, poor thing, are less fortunate than he and the fancy people in his book.”

Now, personal rants of this sort, especially those that rise to histrionic pitch, are usually full of howlers, and Butterfield does not disappoint. For example, his command of the book is so slipshod that he is unable ever to get the book title correct, not even once. Three times he refers to it as “The Object of Beauty.” (But wait, you say — is it possible a gremlin slipped Butterfield a rogue, evil version of the good book I had the pleasure to read?) His paragraph assuring us there has never been an art collector who ever wore an Armani suit is a real hoot.

The decline continues to manifest itself in 2011.

Early in his review of “Bird Cloud” published in the New York Times this week, Dwight Garner lays down a marker, dubbing the book “shelter porn.” It can be viewed, he says, as a product of “a wealthy and imperious writer who . . . believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.” In truth, the tub installation problem that needed correcting (described on page 118) involved a clogged outflow drain which caused water to leak to the downstairs library, threatening Proulx’s research files and vital book collection. I wonder how Garner would react if his auto mechanic were to chide him for selfishly wanting his oil-leaking car engine tweaked “just so.” Oh, never mind.

Then there are the words “tatami mats.” These four syllables have an exotic sound that attracts easy mockery, but does Garner really want to throw his lot in with the class warriors who made hay of Obama’s expression of arugula-love, back in 2008? And what’s with Garner’s prissy “just so” fillip, anyhow? I defy any reader to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the impression of Annie Proulx as a prissy lady (although I have to admit that taunt — Prissy Annie Proulx! Prissy Annie Proulx! — feels kinda good tripping off the tongue). I also defy anyone to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the feeling that Proulx wants us to “sympathize with her” for any of her travails, large or small.

While others (in Slate and in The New Yorker, before which I normally bow down in awe) are saying sweet things about how clever Garner’s review of “Bird Cloud” is (I agree Garner can be witty, and he delivers verdicts with a good comic’s sense of timing), I have a sneaking suspicion neither of the encomium-givers (Timothy Noah and Ian Crouch) has read “Bird Cloud” in full.

One thing I know for sure: no one’s interested in my reviewing their reviews of a review of a book. To get caught up in the vagaries of a posse of literary critics — a dysfunctional family if ever there was one — is not conducive to anyone’s mental or moral health. So, returning to the merits of Proulx’s “Bird Cloud,” I simply will say as a reader I disagree with Garner. With him you get a twofer: a misunderstanding of the book and a misreading of the author.

There has always been a moral component to the best literary criticism. That tradition, when examining “Bird Cloud,” would call on the critic to examine the environmental ethic so important to Proulx’s experience on her 640 acres of raw Wyoming rangeland. Keep in mind this is land the author decided to purchase by trading in her fair-gotten gains from her writings. The seller was The Nature Conservancy, and it is under the constraints of rigorous covenants that Proulx enjoys the property.

Few if any reviewers appear interested in this aspect of the book. Instead, critics stir up (or, in my opinion, make up) grievances. Garner, for example, finds it “deplorable” that Proulx writes so freely about “the perks of [her] success.” Joining Garner in his descent into status resentment is Michael Upchurch, who, in his review of the book in the Seattle Times, gives Proulx the raspberry for overreaching. He sums up his disdain for the 75-year-old author with this barb: “You wonder if Proulx has a single ounce of common sense.”

A notable element in these complaints is the loopy premise that the status of America’s economic health at the moment of a book’s publication could justify placing cautions, if not actual fetters, on free expression. Can that really be what these scolds advocate? Consider how Upchurch upbraids Proulx: “Her decision to publish this account of her extravagance when so many Americans are losing their homes seems in dubious taste.”

All too often nowadays the cultural impotence of book critics’ messages is matched by the imbecility of their content.

I wonder if it’s time to spin a variation on the Catskills resort joke (the food is terrible . . . and such small portions!).

How about this:  What book critics write is terrible . . . and it has no impact!


“Solar” by Ian McEwan

Saturday, February 13th, 2010



“Solar” is something of a departure for McEwan.  It is also something of a disappointment.

The novel traces a decade in the life of Michael Beard, a British Nobel laureate in physics. The book begins in the year 2000 as the 52-year-old scientist’s fifth marriage is dissolving (through every fault of his own), and it ends in 2009 as Beard is about to open a cutting-edge renewable energy facility in New Mexico (with personal disaster imminent).

Readers of McEwan’s earliest books (dark psychological explorations; morbid, perverse, violent) and his most recent novels (grandly serious, elegantly crafted) may be taken aback by this new work. “Solar” is being touted by its publisher and editor, Nan A. Talese, as a “comedy” — a book, she promises, you’ll find filled with “comedic antics”.

I agree with the emerging consensus among readers who’ve had access to an advance reading copy: this is not among McEwan’s best efforts.

In the best of his recent novels McEwan provides readers with the supreme pleasure of a plot and characters that fully seize your consciousness. He composes passages with such fine craft that the reader forgets the act of reading and loses awareness of the author’s hand. There are moments when you find yourself being pulled along by a frictionless, seemingly unmediated flow of story and emotion. The opening of “Enduring Love” and parts of “Saturday” achieve this magical state. Many readers, myself included, experienced this phenomenon most fully in the sweep of “Atonement”.

So a caution is in order: if you pick up “Solar”, do not expect to enjoy anything similar.

The Humor Deficiency

Why is there no magic this time? One answer is that “Solar” is, ostensibly, a “comedy”. Whether the demands of comedy are compatible with McEwan’s strengths as a writer is debatable, and there are few subjects more subjective than the question of what’s funny. Then, too, developing a sustainable comic voice is a matter of practice, of paying dues; no one should expect mastery on a first outing. I join with those who find “Solar” lacking in the art of comedy.

The first 50 pages or so are especially dispiriting: filled with lame humor, sub-Neil-Simon one-liners, and flat-footed stabs at wit. Soon thereafter comes an otherwise well-written episode set in the Arctic Circle, featuring a group of artists on an environmental tour. But when McEwan launches his jokes, there’s precious little originality. Even granting allowances for the piratical practice of comedy, you may be struck by how the best laughs are borrowed ones.

[Spoiler alert] For example, you’ve  laughed  many times at the dilemma of a child straight-jacketed by winter clothing (a staple of kid-centered comic strips, sitcoms, and movies), and so you’ll laugh again as McEwan spends page after page detailing the helplessness of a childish, roly-poly guy, preparing for a sub-zero trek, donning layers and layers of clothes including multiple gloves — who discovers he cannot then put on his boots, or answer a call of nature. You might squirm with delight (as you’ve done before) when the same guy is afflicted by a variation on the gag in the film, “There’s Something About Mary”, getting his genitals caught by a pants zipper.  You may be familiar with the caption written by Robert Mankoff back in 1993 for his oft-reprinted cartoon in The New Yorker (the one in which an executive, trying to avoid agreeing to a meeting, rebuffs the supplicant by saying: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”). If that cartoon is part of your memory bank, you will smile when reading the flash-back scene in “Solar”, set in the 1960’s, when a coed parries young Michael Beard’s request for a date by replying: “How about never? Can you make never?” [End of Spoiler Alert]

The funny business eases off in the remainder of the book, as if McEwan grew bored with the assignment. Yes, the author can construct solid episodes of mirth, and there are bits of bright irony and satiric commentary throughout “Solar”. But McEwan falls short of nailing the tricky task of sustaining a course of original comedy for the book’s length.

The Character Deficiency

If you are a reader who prefers strong main characters and an engaging story arc, “Solar” may disappoint. It does not help matters that, for his choice of a protagonist — the figure who will be the sole thread of continuity among the vignettes that jump around in time and geography — McEwan has conjured up, in the character of Michael Beard, a thoroughly despicable man. Beard is, by his own estimation, “neither observant nor sensitive.” Worse still, he is an inveterate liar and thief, a criminal in the making, and morally bankrupt to boot (“But why should he feel guilt? Someone please tell him why.”) Being in his company is a chore — certainly so for his five discarded wives and the professional colleagues he mistreats. Perhaps for the reader too.

Do not expect any new perspective on adultery or failed relationships.  At one point, when Beard is trapped by the prospect of his two current lovers bumping into each other, he sighs: “Someone, or everyone, would be disappointed. Nothing new there.” I expect at least one unhappy critic will grab onto those words for use in her or his indictment of the entire book. (Click here to read one online reviewer’s lengthy analysis, headlined with a four-word verdict: “A flabby character-portrait”). But I can’t agree with those who are totally dismissive of the work.

Extenuating Circumstances

However shaky its humor and however repulsive its protagonist’s antics, “Solar” still offers redemptive qualities and content. This is, after all, Ian McEwan, one of our best writers, and the bones of his talent cannot be disguised even in this ill-fitting raiment.

McEwan is a master analyst of decaying relationships, of psychological gamesmanship, of battles for personal supremacy. Beard’s failed marital relationships and his disputes with associates provide opportunities for the author to rehearse those tensions.

McEwan seeks to explore nested worlds: Beard’s personal circumstances; the larger sphere of the scientific community of which he is a prominent member; the enveloping social and political order (rapidly descending into disorder); and finally, the natural order of the planet (also under threat). McEwan is a terrific observer of the interrelationship of these spheres.

I was charmed by McEwan’s take on America, where he sets the final third of the book. This British author is evidently fond of our country. At one point he mentions “the plenitude and strangeness of America as represented by its television.” Beard’s American physician “could be counted on to deliver a clinical judgment with the proper neutrality, without the moral undertones, the hint of blame or poorly suppressed outrage Beard had come to expect from his [British doctors].” McEwan approvingly observes “the intimate politeness at which Americans excel.” He notices the way “Americans good-naturedly declare a class affiliation” — citing, by way of example, a woman  who chews gum remorselessly. Here is how Beard’s female companion in New Mexico is described: “She was so merry, so hopelessly optimistic and well-disposed. So American.” And, of course, the weather is better here:

“Always a delicious moment to be savoured, and never to be had in the British Isles, when, showered and perfumed and wearing fresh clothes, one steps out from the air-conditioning into the smooth, invincible warmth of a southern evening.”

Among the themes McEwan briefly explores in “Solar” is the trendy academic movement that would define all areas of knowledge as “socially constructed” – even the hard sciences. The malleability of memory is a recurrent motif, as is the related phenomenon of our all too human capacity for woeful misunderstanding, leading to catastrophe. There is lively (but, again, abbreviated) attention paid to the Two Cultures debate: science versus the humanities (or, more particularly, in the case of Beard’s first marriage, physics versus poetry; Beard’s scientific way of “knowing the world” locks him out of an appreciation of “other ways” of knowing the world.).

Final Observations

In an effort to propel “Solar” forward, McEwan employs the same device used by John Irving in his most recent novel, “Last Night in Twisted River”. Each subsequent section of the book leaps ahead several years, and, after the reader is duly situated into the new period, the author uses flashbacks to fill in the gap. This technique, which might annoy some as desultory, actually does the work of keeping the reader engaged.

The book’s second most important character — a young post-doctorate member of the team of scientists at the British Centre for Renewable Energy — hides a clue to the novel. His name is Tom Aldous. That name, I believe, is a conflation of the names of two real persons, from two previous centuries. McEwen, whose 21st century novel features the dominant science story of our day (climate change) as its “background hum“, has decided to invoke Thomas Henry Huxley, the 19th century scientist who championed the world-altering scientific development of his era, Darwinism. “Tom” Huxley is linked to his grandson, Aldous Huxley, the 20th century author of the enduring utopian novel, “Brave New World”. Aldous was also a writer of satiric novels, some of which featured a topical scientific twist. There may be a humbling lesson in the fact that those satiric novels have long since been forgotten.


Addendum: A Weird Coincidence (a/k/a, the Bacon Bookmark)

On page 167 of “Solar”, McEwan illustrates Michael Beard’s disorderly habits with the story of the time his third wife, while cleaning their home, “discovered in the pages of a valuable first edition an ancient rasher of his breakfast bacon doubling as a bookmark.” A day after I read that passage — cringe-inducing if you’re a book lover — I happened to be watching Stephen Colbert’s interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “Eating Animals”. At the end of the segment, Colbert uses a strip of bacon to mark his place in his copy of Foer’s book. Check out the video, here; Colbert brings out the bacon at 4:45.

The tremendous strength of America

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

A personal essay by David Owen (“The Dime Store Floor”) graces the Jan. 25, 2010 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Throughout the piece Owen’s narrative is intermittently brilliant, as he riffs on a theme posed as a question: What did childhood smell like? I think Owen should try his hand at writing a novel. At one point he describes a recent bike ride near his home, as he came upon members of a girls’ high-school cross-country team running in tight formation:

“As I passed the girls I rode through the invisible trailing cloud of their mingled shampoo fragrances, and suddenly I felt a sort of dumbbell patriotism. My thought was something like this: This is the tremendous strength of America — our vigorous, optimistic young people and their clean, clean hair.”

Dumbbell patriotism. I like that formulation. As an expression of aw-shucks awe at this, our country, and what this country hosts, it captures what I feel each time I come across some vibrant display of the nation’s life-blood.

I’m especially moved to thanks-giving by instances of everyday, nonchalant tolerance. In concept America is defined by freedom and diversity of thought in the public sphere. Happily, there are still a visible examples of that in practice. Consider the advertisement I spotted this week on the rear end of a public bus chugging along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.



British novelist Ian McEwan, in conversation with Richard Dawkins, is less sanguine about the durability of America’s greatness in this regard. Video here. Dawkins mentions what he sees as an America “rapidly degenerating into a theocracy.” McEwan agrees, and says this development is “one of the most extraordinary reversals in history, isn’t it? You have this extraordinary social experiment: America, an immigrant state, founded in reaction to the religious absolutisms of Old Europe. And then, fast-forward a couple of hundred years, you have at least in Western Europe, more or less entirely, a set of secular governments, and political conversations conducted without any reference to God, while the United States is a place where you cannot hold high office without invoking this Deity.”


Oops: Is The New Yorker on Vacation?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

At breakfast this morning, while munching my Cheerios, I came across a head-scratcher of a sentence on page 53 of the August 24, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s in an article written by Tad Friend entitled, “Plugged In — Can Elon Musk Lead the Way to an Electric-Car Future?”:   

In 2004, Musk, who was interested in developing an electric car, met an engineer named Martin Eberhard, proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

If I understand it correctly, it was Mr. Eberhard (not Musk) who proposed to build a car powered by a lithium-ion battery.  So doesn’t there need to be another “who” in there to form a grammatically correct sentence?

In 2004, Musk, who was interested in developing an electric car, met an engineer named Martin Eberhard, who proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

It may be that’s how the sentence read when Mr. Friend submitted the piece to the magazine.  Maybe his editor, or later the proofreader, disliked those two “who’s” in the same sentence.  Fixes were debated.  But wouldn’t you know it, implementing a one-“who” solution was tolled by a deadline. 

If I may offer a two-sentence solution:

Musk was interested in developing an electric car.  In 2004, he met an engineer named Martin Eberhard who proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

I don’t know if that satisfies the rhythm The New Yorker goes for.  It would pass muster with high school English teachers.  Then again, it’s August, and English teachers are on vacation.  Maybe editors too.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest: Update

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Back in February I reported on my many failed attempts at winning The New Yorker’s cartoon caption writing contest.  Now there’s one more failure to add to the pile.  For Contest #201 (July 27,2009), I decided to improve my odds of losing by submitting two captions.  Below is the cartoon (drawn by veteran cartoonist Tom Cheney) followed by five possible captions — two of my ideas mixed in with the three finalists announced this morning.

“My office?  Think of an Edward Hopper — but with lots more light and air.”

“Maybe we should do the firings in the basement?”

“They said the complaint box was anonymous.”

“Let’s meet in my office, weather permitting.”

“Hello, Mother?  I reached the top.  Now what?”


The winner (which again will not be me) is going to be announced August 24.  In the meantime, I found something to support the first caption.  It inspires an alternative caption of even greater obscurity:

“Me?  Oh, just waiting for that secretary in the blue painted-on dress.”



UPDATE (08/25/2009):  The second, third and fourth entries above were the three finalists.  The winner was the fourth caption.   I found another Hopper painting somewhat in the same spirit as Tom Cheney’s cartoon, at least insofar as this office also appears to be al fresco: “Office in a Small City” (1953).


Rauschenberg’s “Signs” – An Appreciation

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

This is the first piece of art I bought.  It’s a silkscreen print created by Robert Rauschenberg.  He titled it “Signs.”



Rauschenberg conceived of “Signs” as a summation of the 1960s.  The piece was an aborted commission for a magazine cover. Rauschenberg released the work in June, 1970, through his gallery affiliation, Castelli Graphics, in an edition of 250 signed impressions. 

The 60s had turned Rauschenberg into a politically engaged artist, and he probably welcomed the challenge of coming to terms with a decade of seering experiences.  Exercising his natural affinity for collage, he would try to make sense out of an explosive arc of events that most observers felt defied all sense.  Raushenberg said the print “was conceived to remind us of love, terror, violence of the last ten years.  Danger lies in forgetting.”

I see “Signs” as an achievement at once topical and timeless.  Topical, obviously, since the artist has brought together a dozen immediately recognizable 60’s images — photos that were then still fresh with pain and joy.  Topical in a slightly broader manner as well, since the picture serves to encapulate the baby boomer generation’s creation myth.  But timeless also, thanks to the artist’s genius in re-fashioning stark images into something whole, something coherent, something aspiring to the redemptive.  

“Signs” belies the rap too often laid on Rauschenberg — that he surrendered to an aesthetic of “messiness.”  I was surprised to find such trash talk being repeated by the perceptive Louis Menand in his recent essay on Donald Barthelme, a modernist author who, Menand argues, boldly borrowed Rauschenberg’s collage approach, and with it made a notable contribution to literature.  (The article, “Saved From Drowning; Barthelme Reconsidered,” appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, available online here.) 

Distinguishing Rauschenberg’s methods from those of previous collagists, Menand makes the following assertions:  “[T]raditional collage arranges fragments into a form, and Rauschenberg’s collages are not organized in any ordinarily legible manner.   …  Most of Rauschenberg’s work … has no center.  Form, in the conventional sense of a hierarchical order, is one of the things he is trying to eliminate.”  Menand sees Rauschenberg’s signature work as embracing “the  illogic . . . the apparent absurdity . . . the arbitrary juxtapositions of radically disparate materials.” 

My purpose in this post is not to quibble with Menand’s characterizationHis article focuses on style, not on the decipherment of any particular work of visual art.  And who can deny that “messiness”  nicely recapitulates the ’60s decade itself. 

Rather, my purpose is to celebrate Rauschenberg’s triumph over formlessness when constructing “Signs.”  I want to praise his decision not to echo chaos or succumb to absurdity. I want to show how he chose instead to commandeer art’s arsenal against entropy.

How did he do this?  Through compositional devices,  juxtapositions,  reconciliations, and slights of hand that are deft, resonant, poignant, and funny.  Logic, not illogic, informs this work of art.  It’s there for all to see:

Tripartite form:   I think even on first encounter the viewer senses both stability and energy in “Signs.”  A feeling of stability derives chiefly from Rauschenberg’s reliance on a structure of three vertical segments nestled in a rectangular confinement.  Up the left side we see a moon-walking Buzz Aldrin claiming a large chunk of space in the frame; above and behind Aldrin is a four-man Army jeep, and above and behind that is a candlelight peace vigil.  The right side is topped with another black-and-white photo, this one of students attending an anti-war teach-in (the left and right corners are nicely balanced).  Below this the artist has positioned a professional photo portrait of a visionary-looking John F. Kennedy, tucked beneath which are a few stills from the Zapruder film that captured JFK’s assassination.  Sandwiched between left and right flanks are puzzle pieces that rise like a totem pole.  Starting from the base, this central composition comprises five elements: (1) the body of Martin Luther King as he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol; (2) a fallen victim of an urban riot; (3) two Vietnam soldiers flanking and supporting a wounded comrade; (4) Bobby Kennedy in earnest oration; and (5) Janis Joplin in wild performance.  The five stations of this central vertical segment are strengthened by an overlapping and interweaving of its parts:  for example, two arms, one begging, one blessing, reach over MLK; RFK’s hand slices through the Vietnam scene, in a call to halt the bloodshed.

Hierarchical order:   This piece most definitely has a “center.”  The central totem is a well-ordered pillar of life, a hierarchy of energy, a flow of life force.  It begins in silence with a photo of MLK in his coffin, his blood stilled by death.  It steps up to the bloodied man fallen in an urban riot.  It rises next to a trio of troops, wounded, bleary, yet upright.  It climbs to catch Robert Kennedy in the middle of an impassioned but controlled speech.  It crescendos with the ecstatic singing of Janis Joplin.  Think of it also as a fountain of youth —  all of its featured players are young (MLK, 39; RFK, 42; Joplin, 27) —  but one tinged with irony.  Only a few months after Rauschenberg completed his composition and released it to the world, Janis Joplin, his friend and fellow escapee from Port Arthur, Texas, died of a drug overdose.  With that death, the vector of the totemic form was altered.  No longer an unstoppable upward force, it now circles back on itself.  It has become a circle of life. 

Cohesion through repeated motifs:  With the possible exception of eyes, the human organ or appendage most crucial to an artist is, I would argue, the hand.  “Signs” is largely a composite portrait, which means it is all about faces.  But to my eyes it is the hands in “Signs” that resonate most strongly.  Notice how Rauschenberg emphasizes their physical meaning while also teasing out their symbolic importance.  A hand may choose to grip a bayoneted rifle to control others, or hold a candle in a hopeful prayer, or grasp a tool of communication (a microphone) to express freedom.  A hand’s fingers may splay to signify peace or extend to confer a blessing over the dead.  Our pride in seeing the iconic image of an American astronaut standing on the lunar surface is tempered when we realize that the sole visible hand of Buzz Aldrin is, in fact, not visible at all.  The hand is protected, swaddled like a mummy, rendered uncommunicative, unlike the vulnerable but expressive hands of earthlings here below.  As for the “face” of America’s technological triumph, it too is so denatured by protective gear as to become literally a “faceless” achievement.  

Unifying  light:  The strong sun and shadow on Buzz Aldin’s space suit blend seamlessly with the other wholly disparate components of the assemblage.  Rauschenberg achieves compositional coherence by making two tears in the material, at the top and right edges, to reveal a white underlayer.  We “read” this exposure as the source of bright light unifying all parts of the composition.  In addition to its formal function, the light poignantly supplies a sacred nimbus around the late RFK’s head.  It may remind us of a painfully ironic fact:  in the 1960’s, men of heart were extinguished, one after another, by head wounds. 

Meaning through color, direction, and tilt:   To begin with the most obvious color cliche, Janis Joplin is red hot.  Then, in the upper left corner’s overlapped images, note how the intense color of the guards gives way to calmer gray tints of a time-hallowed prayer for peace.  Consider also the way in which the dull unlit eyes of the vehicle’s headlights are shamed by the insistent glow of lit candles.  See how the quartet of uniformed men looks left (symbolically toward the past), their eyes shrouded from view, while the lone female representative of the vigil crowd turns her face rightward to meet the future.   If you stare at “Signs” long enough may experience a mild case of vertigo, as there appears to be no pure vertical line anywhere in the composition, no steadying plumb line straight down to the earth.  With the possible exception of the central image of wounded troops, every component is tilted slightly, as if confounding gravity and the comfort of rest.  This floating quality is consistent with Rauschenberg’s practice, in art works he called “combines,” of eschewing a sense of up or down.  In “Signs,” I think these off-kilter notes lend energy and flow to the work.  This is an appropriate way to express a dynamic, unstable period.

Surface versus depth:  In their original condition, the dozen photos that Rauschenberg selected to fill the rectangle differed in their objectively measurable proportions, lighting sources, coloration, and focus, and many other inherent qualities — not to mention differences in the sensibilities of a dozen different photographers responsible for the images. There is every reason for the assemblage to fly off in all directions beyond the frame.  Yet somehow the pieces settle into position, inviting the viewer to proceed with decipherment.  One thing that locks the parts into place is a bit of legerdemain, namely, the appearance of a round, clear glass paperweight on the flattened surface plane, just to the right of Joplin’s microphone.  Its clever purpose is to arrest fugitive movement.  We also notice a scraped trail, yellow in color, leading up to the paperweight’s current resting place, suggesting that the weight recently migrated diagonally from a position atop the fallen riot victim, stopping atop Janis’s tossed hair — hair the large convex lens magnifies and swirls into a psychedelic hallucination.

Generosity of details:  After all these years there are parts of “Signs” that newly intrigue me.  I’ve mentioned the intricate interweaving of imagery in the central “totem” which required careful scissoring of figures; why then is the JFK photo the only one with a sharp right angled corner left intact?  Why no contouring, no integration of that photo?  And is that a snippet of a Lichtenstein pop art painting under the President’s nose?  What is the meaning of  the eleven blue dots in the lower right corner, traditionally the location for the creator’s signature?  Bullet holes?  Is it fair to say the decade was “signed” by gun violence?  

Irony and humor:   Ironic visual juxtapositions abound in Rauschenberg’s work.  Here, in the upper left a military jeep purports to escort a trailing “CONVOY,” while the only group that’s “FOLLOWING” is a peace vigil in repose.  Also on display is tongue-in-cheek ribaldry.  Note how RFK’s mouth, at a moment formed into a suckling shape, approaches Joplin’s breast.  The rectangle’s black border can sturdily contain every image, except for two forces that pierce the top margin: the thrust of a bayonet (does its violation of the skin of the piece account for the drops next to RFK’s hand?) and the force, like rising red molten lava, of a volcanic Janis Joplin.  In a final flourish, the artist asserts his dominance: small block letter initials — R.R. — resting on the bottom margin, are so powerful that their strength can lift up, and playfully tilt, a hero astronaut.


“Signs,” screenprint (silkscreen, silk screen, screen print) in colors, 1970, signed in pencil, numbered [my impression is numbered 40/250] and dated, lower right, on wove paper, published by Castelli Graphics, New York, 35 1/4 by 26 5/8 inches; 895 by 677 mm.  Purchased from Makler Gallery, Philadelphia,  March, 1977.  I first saw the work not at a gallery but at a museum exhibition, the 1976 Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition staged at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Art (now the National Museum of American Art) in Washington, DC.  One room in the show was devoted to prints, one of which was “Signs.”  I was so bowled over by its power that I vowed to acquire an impression of the print, at whatever sacrifice it took.


UPDATE 06-14-2009:  Today I came across a blog posting that provides additional background on the genesis of “Signs,” including key details that I believe had not previously been published.  According to an article posted on on July 21, 2008, entitled “Rauschenberg – part 1,” the work was initially commission by Time magazine:

“’Signs,’ 1970, was originally created as an illustration for a Time magazine cover that would herald the 1970s. Rauschenberg felt, however, that the 1970s was really a continuation of the 1960s and inserted images of Janis Joplin, Martin Luther King, the moon landing, and the Kennedy Assassination. The cover was rejected by the Time Magazine editors who wanted to look forward to hopefully better times than the tumultuous 60s. Leo Castelli (Rauschenberg’s dealer at the time) stepped in and published a photosilkscreen edition of the collage.”

I’m struck by the joy expressed by Rauschenberg enthusiasts, as in this essay by John Haber on the occasion of the Rauschenberg retrospective in NYC over a decade ago:   Can any other recent artist match him?