In her 1987 story, the narrator’s crush — a white minister’s son — comes over for Christmas dinner with his family. She’s mortified when her parents reach across the table to dip into platters, instead of passing them. Then her father burps to signify his approval of the meal. Only later does she realize that her parents served all her favorites, squid with the look of bicycle tires and a whole rock cod whose head disgusts the squeamish guests.
It was the first time I’d read a short story about a Chinese American teenager. Later, I would learn that Tan is roughly a generation older than me. Her parents were adults during World War II, while mine were very young. Even though the details of our lives differed in significant ways, certain contours were familiar, those of shame and pride and love.
In the social-media era, though, “vibe” has come to mean something more like a moment of audiovisual eloquence, a “sympathetic resonance” between a person and her environment, as Robin James, a professor of philosophy at U.N.C. Charlotte wrote in a recent newsletter. What a haiku is to language, a vibe is to sensory perception: a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement. (#Aesthetic is sometimes used to mark vibes, but that term is predominantly visual.) A vibe can be positive, negative, beautiful, ugly, or just unique. It can even become a quality in itself: if something is vibey, it gives off an intense vibe or is particularly amenable to vibes. Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience. That pre-linguistic quality makes them well suited to a social-media landscape that is increasingly prioritizing audio, video, and images over text. Through our screens, vibes are being constantly emitted and received.
Finally the letter came, the important letter, and we had to be out by September 16th. We held a yard sale and haggled over our furniture. I left for college across the country; my mom moved boxes into storage. A week later, a town near ours burned down in a wildfire, and much of the county had to evacuate, but she was already gone by then.
She did what made sense at the time. She moved into an RV, and hit the road.
We’ve all wondered how the other half lives, but how many of us have fabricated an identity to find out? That’s what Hungarian artist Andi Schmied did: As “Gabriella,” an ultrawealthy European socialite searching for a New York apartment, Schmied was granted access to more than two dozen of New York’s most luxurious properties, many on the southern end of Central Park along what’s affectionately called Billionaires’ Row.
On the surface, then, this is a novel of glaring privilege, steeped in a mode of middle-class existence so rarified that the “lower things” must never be allowed to intrude. This is, however, a Cusk novel, and in Cusk novels the surface, as experienced by reader and characters alike, invariably proves too fragile to be trusted. Second Place, it turns out, is a novel less about property, and more about the boundaries and misplaced emotional investment for which property is a proxy.
Now, still not content just to make up some imaginary characters and have them interact, he presents something that reads more like a collection of primary sources than a conventional novel. What to call it? A historical systems novel, preoccupied with the roots of great power conflict, and the historical forces that underpin it? Or just a jeu d’esprit? It’s a bit of both, and it’s tremendous fun.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? As the authors of Reimagining Time make clear, one of the most important conceptual advances of the 20th century was to note that we cannot lose sleep over philosophical questions like this until we have nailed down what it means for two things to occur simultaneously, never mind for one thing to occur before the other. And it was the crucial insight of a Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein that the simultaneity of two events — not to mention the passage of time, and even the physical dimensions of objects — was actually relative to the frame of reference of the observer. This overthrew a good 250-odd years of scientific consensus regarding the Newtonian structure of the space and time and still remains something of an intellectual challenge for the uninitiated. It is the purpose of this book, an imaginative collaboration between a graphic artist and a professional physicist, to help us get the underlying principles straight.
As the title suggests, Kaku’s latest concern is with what he calls the “holy grail” of all science, the metaphorical “umbilical cord” of our infant universe, whenever it was (or wasn’t) born out of the alleged multiverse. He wanted to write a balanced account of the physics community’s quest to prove string theory — and thus to resolve the messy, imperfect Standard Model of subatomic particles into one elegant theory of everything. This book is like a State of the Union where the union is all of existence.