A lovely and heartening sentiment, perhaps, when it’s the guy who did Phantom Thread counseling the guy who did A Quiet Place. “Dude, Paul Thomas Anderson is out there on the wall for us!” Krasinski continued. “He’s defending the value of the artistic experience. He’s so good that maybe you project onto him that he’s allowed to be snarky, but he’s the exact opposite: He wants to love everything because that’s why he got into moviemaking. And ever since then, I’ve never said that I hate a movie.”
Another way to get out there on the wall and defend the value of the artistic experience is to take the precise opposite approach. Roger Ebert, on the 1994 family comedy North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott on the 2008 Will Smith melodrama Seven Pounds: “Among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.” Every film critic in America, myself included, roughly paraphrased on 2018’s farcical mob biopic Gotti: “LMFAO.”
“I don’t know why the city wins over the country, I don’t.” I read this comment below a newspaper article on rural health care featuring the somewhat dire title, “Colorado Divide: In rural Colorado, doctors are retiring and dying—and no one is taking their place,” and it struck me that it is no great stretch here to substitute “tenured professors” or “school teachers” or “librarians” or many other professions for “doctor.” Of course, each profession faces difficulties that do not divide upon lines so cleanly defined, nor is it quite accurate to say that “no one,” in these instances, is stepping in—although, to be sure, nurse practitioners, iterant adjuncts, subs and student teachers, and staff heading up the school library desk may feel as invisible as that—yet it is clear that the problem is real and invites thought that avoids the too-easy summations that so often characterize the urban/rural “divide” in our public and political discourse.
It is a data-laden phenomenon, to be sure, but it is not the data that interests me so much as the possibilities the data presents for symbolic correspondences. The concern here involves the ways in which we use language to shape our existence wherever it is upon the map we happen to find ourselves.
By about 2010, the fancy burger had become all but ubiquitous, so thoroughly fetishized and aestheticized that its latter-day accoutrements veered perilously close to punch line territory. Of course every restaurant with a bar had a burger that attempted to distinguish itself from the rest, whether it came clothed in raclette, caramelized onions, and tomato aioli, a la New York’s Bowery Meat Company, or plopped on a biscuit and piled with pimento cheese, bacon jam, and an egg, a la Nashville’s Biscuit Love. Of course, those burgers were advertised by their parts rather than the sum of them: the grass-fed beef, the brioche bun, the house-made pickles, the special blend from LaFrieda or DeBragga, another purveyor of bespoke cow parts. Depending on how you looked at it, the burger had reached its apotheosis or nadir.
And then Instagram came along.
For the most part, “realism” in current discussions of fiction has become conflated with conventional narrative practice: “storytelling” employing the orthodox “elements” of fiction as developed in that latter 19th and early 20th centuries. While in American literary history at least, the rise of realism in this period did bring a change in the kinds of subjects addressed (more “ordinary” characters), in setting (less familiar sorts of places, made to seem “real” in the kind of description involved), and in the stories told (fewer stories about haunted mansions or demoniac white whales), as well as in the manner of telling (less grandiloquent, but also less stylistically dynamic), in both the new realism and the old romanticism writers ultimately perceived their task to be relating a story recognizable as such according to accepted dramatic form—elucidated perhaps most memorably by Gustave Freytag in his famous “pyramid.”
It's hard to think of a more aptly named recent novel than Fever Dream, Argentine author Samantha Schweblin's 2017 book about a woman and boy who find themselves together in a country hospital. The novel, Schweblin's first to be translated into English, was haunting and nightmarish, and evoked a world where everything is distorted, unfamiliar and, above all, frightening.
Admirers of Schweblin's work will be delighted to learn that she hasn't lost any of the atmospheric creepiness that made Fever Dream such an unsettling ride. Her new short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, is just as ethereal and bizarre as its predecessor, and it proves that Schweblin is a master of elegant and uncanny fiction.
Gabbert has described The Word Pretty as “a collection of critical essays, rarities, & B-sides,” and also as “one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do,” but in the end, my micro-experience with the discussion of the spelling of Alan/Allen echoes the macro-experience of reading the book — all the individual essays feel meaningfully connected, like the balls on the pool table. Although the pattern they form may appear to be random, the leave has been cleverly chosen, and the shot goes in.
Sarah Moss’s eerie new novel, “Ghost Wall,” opens with an incantatory prologue. A young woman is being prepared for sacrifice. The final sky she will ever see fades above her as the twilight is buffeted by drumbeats. She is stripped and bound, the hair shaved from her head, while friends and family stand in witness. When knives and ropes and stones are deployed against her, no one protests, no one falters. The blood ritual binds the community together as surely as the pounding of the drums. There is an art to the preparation of a sacrifice, and as the prologue draws to its shivery end, we sense the intoxicating power of that art. Before we have read two pages, Moss has made us complicit in an act of primal violence.
“Ghost Wall,” Moss’s sixth novel, is a compact, riveting book. Female sacrifice is never far from the center of her concerns; she wants us to question our complicity in violence, particularly against women.
What emerges in “Revolution Sunday” is primarily a novel of the self, of an artist contending with her own vanishing. The paradox of isolation without privacy. The isle in the word exile. “Why do this to me?” Cleo thinks after her home is raided by police. “Who am I to them? Above all, who am I to me?”
When it comes to this fleshed neck
even a finger could do it,