In 2016 the great London agent Ed Victor, and the equally formidable Graham C. Greene, a nephew of the novelist, asked me if I would consider writing a sequel to the Philip Marlowe novels that have periodically appeared since Raymond Chandler’s death in 1959. The offer, as you might expect, was gentlemanly. Robert B. Parker and the novelist John Banville would be my only predecessors, having between them published three Marlowe novels between 1988 and the present. The sequels began with Parker’s “Poodle Springs,” a completion of Chandler’s last novel, then continued with the same author’s “Perchance to Dream,” in 1991, and culminated with Banville’s “The Black Eyed Blonde,” published under his pen name Benjamin Black in 2014. I was told that I could do more or less whatever I wanted — within reason. But what was within reason?
My new novel, The Biggerers, is a dystopian tale about big people who keep little people as pets. This was always the one-line pitch but it’s only now, whilst going back through my narrative choices when writing The Biggerers, that I realize how I reached this idea. I was trying to create a pet-human dynamic that would either impose human qualities, such as speech, onto a pet or somehow demote a human to the status of pet.
There is great benefit, these days, in having a name unlike any other: you float to the top of Google searches. Bolerium Books, in San Francisco, knows this well, although it wasn’t a consideration when it first opened, in 1981. Bolerium’s co-owner, John Durham, runs through any number of explanations for the name, depending on whose leg he wants to pull and how hard. “It was an ancient road in Roman times,” he intoned recently, “large, funny, and sluggish,” while another co-owner, Alexander Akin, roundly mouthed, “Not true.” (The word is a Roman one for Land’s End, in Cornwall, England. The bookstore was once a bit closer to the ocean.) Fittingly, there is no other place like Bolerium, not on the Internet nor in the province of the real. Similes come steadily, none of which really seem to fit. Perhaps Durham’s is best. “We’re like a platypus,” he told me recently, “ugly as fuck and all sorts of parts.”
To cater to these less-than-wondrous requirements, the parks are, in reality, self-contained marvels of metropolis-building. Disneyland Park in California has a reliable transit system—the first monorail in the Western Hemisphere, which debuted just as many cities were expressing their love of cars and traffic by laying down ribbons of highway. Walt Disney World Resort, in Florida, innovated with trash: Cans are spaced precisely 30 feet apart, and all of them empty via underground tubes so that family vacations aren’t interrupted by vehicles hauling sun-baked garbage juice.
None of this happened by accident. Long before the parks were magic, they were conceived as two-dimensional representations, or as miniatures. Like many city planners, Disney’s chief urban brainstormers and engineers first imagined the parks’ shapes, structures, and logistics, on a small scale.
I wiped my tears and scanned my imagination. Exploding galaxies to explore, strange dimensions, star clusters, sunbursts, Earthrise over our moon, star-forming nebula, cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang. What does a black hole feel like when you’re disembodied and inside of it? My mind was clear. A cool mist like summer rain while scuba diving underwater but without equipment. She continued to encourage me to throw things away. “It gets easier. Throw it away. Nothing matters. Whoosh.” I winced, then felt relieved, then felt horrible and finally caved and decided to be dead, dead, dead. As shock left me, I imagined looking around at my new home out in space: stars blinked on and off like fireflies, nearby yet distant, planets with inconceivable colors of lilac-brown and red-rust that hadn’t been refracted through an atmosphere and the curve of the turning Earth.
Everything gets easier according to everyone who believes that life is a positive cult. This guide said she used to have an argument with the world. She was angry at all corners of her soul. “I’m happier,” she said calmly. “You have a very open mind. You’ll do well here.” I panicked and came back to Earth. My feet reappeared, and my hands, which I’d watched burn away, per her instructions, grew back like a starfish regenerating its limbs. Whole again. Beanbag chair and teenager and dog and boyfriend, jobs and writing to do and the whole shebang of worries. I forced a breath out. She was wrong about me.
In the poetry world, a current trend is poetry centered upon place. Jason Freure’s debut collection of poetry, Everyone Rides the Bus in a City of Losers, explodes this mode of writing in its intimate look at the city of Montréal, Québec. Readers see the city through the eyes of a speaker who has become an insider—in the sense that he lives in and is intimately familiar with the metro lines and neighborhoods of Montréal—but is also still very much an outsider, who has long ago shed the romanticized lens of the tourist (if he did indeed ever see the city in this way). With a voice reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro” and T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, the speaker invites readers to “see” his city in all its dirt and grime. His tone is sometimes disillusioned, sometimes sardonic; at other times it is droll and playful.
What happens when the life of the person you spend your days studying starts to leak into your own? In “The Victorian and the Romantic,” her whip-sharp memoir, the British author Nell Stevens describes how she found herself increasingly haunted by the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, the author of “Mary Barton” and “North and South,” whom she had recently chosen as the subject of her Ph.D.
Still, she knits satire and philosophy with a deliciously droll touch. Much like Blake, Janina imagines the world as “a great big net”. This “complex Cosmos of correspondences” meshes together “like a Japanese car”. Human or animal, the humbler links in the engine of life will enjoy their bittersweet revenge.
A new book looks back on two decades of the artist’s installations, which use man-made materials to explore the natural world.