Historians sometimes speak of “the long 19th century”—a continuation of the superficial stability seen in the late 1800s, which in 1914 was finally shattered by World War I. Almost two decades into the 21st century, we are now experiencing a comparable breakdown of the apparent verities with which many of us grew up. The so-called postwar consensus that led to the formation of the European Union and its attendant international alliances is starting to unravel. Nativist anti-immigrant movements have gained traction in countries (including the United States) formerly considered bastions of human rights. Income inequality has risen to extremes not witnessed since the 1920s. Far from being immune to these external stressors, the art world is very much a product of larger socio-economic forces that determine what gets seen, sold and valued, aesthetically as well as monetarily. In art, the long 20th century, associated with modernism and its postmodern dénouement, has ended. The future of art will be shaped by a very different set of circumstances.
Why so serious? to quote a famous clown, is a question being asked about comedy more and more frequently by its consumers and by comedians themselves. To the point where some are questioning if it can even be called “comedy.” “Nanette is more a TED Talk than a stand-up special” was a common refrain this summer. “Is Drew Michael even a stand-up special?” was a question I was asked about the audience-free HBO hour. To take it to scripted TV, I’m frequently reminded of a joke from Difficult People: “When did comedies become 30-minute dramas?” Comedians and comedy writers are increasingly pushing the bounds of what it means for something to be a comedy in the most basic sense, rewiring the relationship between comedies and jokes. So what is comedy without jokes? It’s Post-Comedy.
Sure, it sounds pretentious; it’s a pretentious shift, especially for a form that has always seemed allergic to pretension. But it seems the best way to describe comedy is that it’s looking more like the frowning mask than the smiling one. I was confused to see some writers refer to Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s much discussed stand-up special that deconstructed how stand-up works and passionately made a case for the shortcomings of comedy as a medium for expressing pain, as “anti-comedy.” Though it takes an antagonistic view of comedy, anti-comedy is already a thing (simply: it’s a joke that’s funny because it’s not unfunny), and it is not what Hannah Gadsby did. My colleagues Matt Zoller Seitz’s term for serious comedies — the “comedy in theory” — is closer, but it’s become increasingly clear that they are comedies in practice, formally redefining what comedy is itself.
Losers are a fixture of my workday as a sportswriter.
Talking to a person coming off court who was just dealt a crushing defeat, and offering some vague, platitudinous comfort to assuage their raw battle wound, is a necessary task in the job. On rarer occasions, I’ve talked to those who have just suffered a defeat so harrowing and derailing that it has them visibly doubting the viability of their career. But for most losers, even in down moments, there’s the credibility and dignity of having just performed for an appreciative crowd of some size in a respected, aspirational pursuit like professional sports.
There’s nothing remotely aspirational, though, about the Applebee’s restaurant I found myself in during day 6 of the 2017 US Open. And sitting across a table bearing mozzarella sticks and glasses of tap water, these were not my normal losers.
These approaches have brought a certain creative rejuvenation to the industry: Not only did the Beyoncé cover shoot make history, it was a refreshing, visually compelling take on a craft long dominated by the likes of Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. In the same way it feels genuinely novel to see an all-Asian cast in a Western blockbuster such as Crazy Rich Asians, it’s just as thrilling to see those new faces splashed across the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. And even science-centric magazines like National Geographic have begun to engage with hot-button issues like gender and race with provocative (if sometimes clumsy) cover subjects.
But this enlightened era has also created a fractured audience: younger, less committed readers who exist in the digital sphere, and older, loyal subscribers who feel alienated by change. In a fight for survival, the average mainstream magazine is undergoing an identity crisis. Stop and look, and you’ll see it playing out in the most public place possible: the cover.
I couldn’t polish off more than a third of the thing. Lee slid the calzone into a massive to-go box, and I carried it back to my summer sublet across the Brooklyn museum and shared the rest with friends, reheated, for dinner at their apartment that night.
That afternoon is the mental postcard moment I’ll carry with me from this summer. Di Fara had long been on the list of essential Brooklyn restaurants I’d hoped to visit. It felt even better, though, to have savored a little triumph in an impractical, sporadic, just-for-fun calzone quest I’d chased through July and August. In practice, I was just channeling my job of endlessly researching restaurants into a pet project. But actually this journey into Brooklyn’s calzone culture was an exercise to ground myself in a place.
Pick up a magazine or fall down Instagram’s rabbit hole and you’re likely to come across at least one photograph lit up by an unnaturally bright flash — a flash that floods the space, evenly illuminating every detail in vivid color. When it catches someone unaware, laughing or cheering or yelling, you can see clear into their mouth, all the way to the pink inside of their cheek.
Under this light, which is ruthless but not unflattering, you can count the grains of quinoa in a Sweetgreen Chicken Pesto Parm bowl. You appreciate every buttery gradient on the toasted exterior of a Waffle House sandwich. The subjects of the photograph may be young Fortnite players, royal wedding superfans, or political protesters; no matter who they are, their teeth look whiter, and their skin glows as though post-facial, even more so when amplified by the luminosity of a computer or phone screen.
“CoDex 1962” is the newly translated triptych by the Icelandic fabulist Sjon, heralded as an heir to Kafka and Borges. It contains every fictional element and effect I’m leery of — unicorns, for example. Elaborate framing devices. Moist ruminations on mythopoeia. Angels.
Everything I can scarcely bear in novels, I found in this book. And I was spirited away — for a time.
Shteyngart’s fourth and latest novel, “Lake Success,” veers from its forebears by placing a Long Island-born financier at its center, rather than Russian émigrés or their children, and for the most part shuns themes of transnational displacement and the hyphenated existence. Yet the fuel and oxygen of immigrant literature — movement, exile, nostalgia, cultural disorientation — are nevertheless what fire the pistons of this trenchant and panoramic novel. Shteyngart’s subject may be America, but it’s Trump’s America: seething, atomizing, foreign and hostile even to itself. “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” Roberto Bolaño once asked, a question that goes echoing through this novel. “Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?”