If you live in a city today, you will have to think about malls. Urbanization will go on for some decades before it flattens off, “once Africa completes the industrialization process started by Britain in the 19th century,” per Stephen Cairns of the Future Cities Laboratory. At least until then, the planet will have new malls.
Dealing with this new urban form requires vigilance. Even if you never experienced the Jane Jacobs fantasy of a neighborhood street ballet, it’s draining to give in to city life predicated on spending. Resistance is difficult: spend more time in houses (although city homes tend to shrink or drift further from the center over time)? Seek out parks (even as the climates of many cities get more inhospitable by the day)? But the efforts count, especially in scale: “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is […] one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights,” as the leftist geographer David Harvey once said.
Without rejecting the language claim outright, I’d like to venture a new defining feature of humanity – wary as I am of ink spilled trying to explain the folly of such an effort. Among all these wins for animals, and while our linguistic differences might define us as a matter of degree, there’s one area where no other animal has encroached at all. In our era of Teslas, Uber and artificial intelligence, I propose this: we are the beast that automates.
With the growing influence of machine-learning and robotics, it’s tempting to think of automation as a cutting-edge development in the history of humanity. That’s true of the computers necessary to produce a self-driving car or all-purpose executive assistant bot. But while such technology represents a formidable upheaval to the world of labour and markets, the underlying point of these inventions is to achieve a goal nearly as old as our very first tools: exporting a task to an autonomous system that can complete it without continued human input. This might seem like something far beyond the reach of all but the most modern humans, but it’s actually a thread that runs through human history.
Lord Chesterfield called the novel “a kind of abbreviation of a Romance.” Ian McEwan described the more compact novella as “the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” William Trevor considered the short story “essential art.” Writing a story, he said, is infinitely harder than writing a novel, “but it’s infinitely more worthwhile.” And now we have the even shorter story, a form that was validated, if it needed to be, when Lydia Davis, whose stories are sometimes a sentence long, was awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. In their citation, the judges said of Davis’s works: “Just how to categorize them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apothegms, prayers or simply observations.”
The short-short story is narrative (or it’s not) that is distilled and refined, concentrated, layered, coherent, textured, stimulating, and resonant, and it may prove to be the ideal form of fiction for the 21st century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it. And on the screens of our smartphones and our iPads and our laptops, we can fit an entire work of flash fiction. It’s short but not shallow; it’s a reduced form used to represent a larger, more complex story; it’s pithy and cogent, brief and pointed, and like the gist of a recollected conversation, it offers the essential truth, if not all the inessential facts.
My first approach to a cover always begins in my sketchbook. After reading the manuscript and taking brief notes, I begin drawing small thumbnail versions of loose cover ideas to work out composition and placement. This helps me to avoid getting mired in unnecessary details too early in the process. There is so much that I wanted to capture on this jacket, this was definitely an instance where I had to break it down to one overarching mood: I chose fa-bu-lo-si-ty.
Voguing obviously came to mind—could I represent the graphic hand movements cleanly? Would it be readable and tell the reader exactly what he or she needed to know right away? I found the work of an illustrator named Blake Kathryn who creates these dreamlike 3D illustrations, and while I loved that these figures appeared to be voguing, something about the digital rendering looked a bit too sci-fi.
The hamburger, long the all-American meal, has always contained an element of instability to it, not only because it can rot. From references in popular culture to investors like Bill Gates seeking to find the non-animal burger that can feed the world, the burger’s identity is as malleable as that patty of protein itself before it is thrown on a grill. Perhaps both the burger and the citizens it feeds are changing.