Which is to say that a commute is an occasion for self-delusion. It is an hour of preening and exhortation during which we psych ourselves up for the day’s demands. When I was in my early 20s, during the first decade of the century, I lived in a dingy apartment on the north side of Chicago and interned for a certain big-eared senator who harbored presidential ambitions. Three days a week, I spent an hour on the El, jouncing toward the Loop, wearing a suit that didn’t fit me and an ill-advised goatee. I had grown up in small-town Wisconsin and pegged myself as a wide-eyed Huckleberry unfit for national politics. During my commute, I tried to compensate by watching, on my laptop, episodes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, modeling my persona on the role of Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff who blustered and quipped his way across the Capitol, deactivating political foes with unction and blandishment. Within the span of an hour, Lyman’s serrated wit gave me a stencil for my workday sensibility, even though my own tasks in the senator’s office never went beyond typing correspondence or fielding constituents’ complaints.
Of course, a commute is a circular journey, a coming and going, so whatever varnish we apply to our psyches in the morning invariably wears off by the hour of return. At no time is this more apparent than on evening buses and trains, when the despair of fellow passengers can so thoroughly darken your mood that you find yourself getting off several stops before your exit. The apparition of these faces in a crowd, Ezra Pound wrote of a subway station in 1913, petals on a wet, black bough.
It’s hard to understand how it happened. Ring Lardner was an elite writer of his time, but even his charity rate doesn’t look bad these days. Adjusted for inflation, that five cents per word is now worth about 70 cents, which is considered a respectable fee at legacy publications and well-funded startups. The $1 per word Lardner got from Cosmo, on the other hand, is worth over $14 now. I’ve spoken with dozens of freelance writers throughout my career and can report that’s more than twice as much as I’ve ever heard of a writer receiving, period. Twelve of Lardner’s stories — let’s call that a year’s worth of work for a feature writer — would earn him $600,000 in 2018.
Either Lardner is the greatest writer of all time by a wide margin or something screwy happened to writer pay over the past century. No offense to Lardner, but evidence suggests it’s the latter.
“I vant to be alone,” my mother used to say distractedly, channeling Greta Garbo, when my brother and I were wrecking havoc at home. In fact, though Garbo’s character said the line in the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Garbo herself never said it. What she said, when faced with a scrum of journalists at a press conference a few years later, was “I want to be let alone.”
But in our culture, the distinction between the two statements has been conflated. For us, “I vant to be alone” means I want to be off the grid, no iPhone, no email, the 24-7 connectivity of our lot. I want to be let alone to be alone. No wonder that, to a writer—to readers, to all overwhelmed people now—solitude suggests not loneliness but serenity, that kissing cousin of sanity. We speak of being alone to recharge our batteries—even in our reach for solitude, we seem unable to unplug from the metaphor of our connectivity.
Yet here’s the greater paradox: writing, though performed alone, is also the only absolutely declarative, meaning-beset art form we have. Its purpose is to communicate. With others. More than a painter, much more than a composer, a writer can never “be alone.”
How did three, and only three, food-related terms become shorthand for mental illness?
There are reasons, or at least guesses, for the winding path these three terms took. But their etymologies are not related, and show just how weird and broken and non-systematic language can be. To put it in another, definitely worse way: What if….it’s language itself….that is bananas, crackers, and/or nuts?
The key to a certain kind of songwriting, it’s been said, is to deliver blues in the verse and gospel in the chorus. There’s not a lot of gospel in these two books — just a strong, wary sense of watching and waiting.
While there are echoes here and there of Shakespeare’s language (which Don Bartlett, who translated the novel from the Norwegian, has handled well), Nesbo is less interested in the original’s verbal texture than he is in adapting its plot and delving into the moral choices confronting its characters. In the end, he offers a dark but ultimately hopeful “Macbeth,” one suited to our own troubled times, in which “the slowness of democracy” is no match for power-hungry strongmen who demand unstinting loyalty from ethically compromised followers, and where the brave must band together to defeat the darker forces that threaten to destroy the social fabric.