When I was about 10 or 11, my father took me to a nursing home one summer evening. As a pharmacist in the small Irish city of Kilkenny, he sometimes visited customers and other elderly acquaintances who were hospitalized or bedridden, and I would insist on going with him, as in those days I insisted on accompanying him wherever he went, relishing even the prospect of a trip to the dump if it meant spending time alone with my father, whom I idolized. This nursing home, a low and dreary building, was a place I’d never been to before; known locally as “the poor house,” it was a state-run institution for elderly and senile patients whose families could not afford to pay for their care.
In a bed next to the woman my father and I were visiting was another woman, a woman who struck me as impossibly ancient and decrepit, and who kept trying to requisition my father’s attention away from her neighbor. She was deranged with senescence and loneliness and other unknowable sorrows remote from my childish understanding. The woman we were visiting kept telling us to pay her no mind; she never got any visitors and was merely starved for attention.
Read the rest at The New York Times Magazine
The new book “Working on My Novel,” though it bears on its cover the name of Cory Arcangel—the New York artist known for his creative exploitations of technology—is an aggregation of the work of several dozen more obscure writers. I say “work,” but really what I mean is tweets, a distinction that the book invites the reader to consider. Before it was a book, “Working on My Novel” was a Twitter experiment, or performance, in which Arcangel systematically retweeted tweets containing the phrase “working on my novel.” The book presents a selection of those tweets, each of which is given a page all its own, like heirloom aphorisms cased in an imposing white emptiness.
Read the rest at The New Yorker
I was in a bookshop a couple of months ago, browsing the nonfiction section, when the idle rightward flick of my gaze was brought to a halt by the hardback spine of a new Geoff Dyer book. It was called The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China. My initial pleasure at discovering that Dyer had a new book out was quickly undercut by a creeping sense of doubt about the title and the topic, both of which seemed fundamentally un-Dyeresque. I then immediately dismissed this doubt, because Dyer is exactly the kind of writer—perhaps the writer—for whom no topic or title could be said to be out of sync with its predecessors, precisely for the reason that each of his books is out of sync with every other. Being fundamentally un-Dyeresque is, to put it maybe a little too Dyeresquely, the most fundamentally Dyeresque thing a Dyer book could possibly be.
Read the rest at Slate
Arthur Schopenhauer—the 19th century German philosopher for whom human existence was a perpetually swinging “pendulum between suffering and boredom,” and the world itself a hell in which “human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other”—tends to get pigeonholed as a fairly downbeat guy. But the author of such elegantly corrosive essays as “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life” and “The Fullness of Nothingness” is also apparently responsible for the quote that probably appeared on the inside of the card you gave your dad on his 50th birthday: “Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.”
Read the rest at Slate
On a bright and blustery morning in February, I stepped out my front door and walked until I reached the north bank of the River Liffey, where I crossed a bridge and stopped in front of a dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island. The house stood a little back from the street, as though in quiet reproach of its surroundings, the only Georgian redbrick in a row of humbler buildings facing the river; it was flanked squatly on one side by a small car upholstery concern, and, on the other, by a large modern block of apartments. The windows of this dark gaunt house were opaque with brownish grime from the heavy traffic along the south quays, but in one of the dim street-level rooms I could make out the looming profile of a massive papier-mâché head, perhaps 3 feet high. The sheer slope of the nose, terminating in a trim gray mustache; the almost comic nobility of the chin; the gigantic fedora overmastering a high forehead: It was instantly apparent whom this cartoon head was intended to represent. Printed on the fan window over the front door were the words James Joyce House, and then, directly beneath these, “The Dead.”
Last Sunday evening, shortly after I learned of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I found myself on Twitter, scrolling through my timeline, undoing, by persistent finger-swipes, the accumulation of minutes and hours since the news was reported. In a vague, half-conscious way, I was playing at reversing the passage of time, back to the moments before the world knew it had lost one of its most talented actors. And what struck me as I moved down through the steep vertical of statements, exclamations, abrupt avowals of personal loss, was how profoundly the public experience of death has been altered by social media.
Most days, part of the complex compulsion of Twitter is the fragmentariness of the experience, the way in which, barring some terrible or hilarious or infuriating event, everyone tends to be talking about something different. You scroll through your timeline and you get a witticism, then an entreaty to read an essay or column, then a grandstanding denunciation of some phone company’s subpar customer service, then an announcement of what a specific person’s current jam is, then an accidental insight into some inscrutable private misery. Its multifariousness and thematic disorder is a major element of its appeal. But with the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Reed or Seamus Heaney—someone who has left an impression on many, many people—there is a quick and radical convergence of focus. For a short time, Twitter becomes a coherent experience: it becomes a sort of wake.
Read the rest at The New Yorker.
One of the strange and slightly creepy pleasures that I get from using Twitter is observing, in real time, the disappearance of words from my stream as they are deleted by their regretful authors. It’s a rare and fleeting sight, this emergency recall of language, and I find it touching, as though the person had reached out to pluck his words from the air before they could set about doing their disastrous work in the world, making their author seem boring or unfunny or ignorant or glib or stupid. And whenever this happens, I find myself wanting to know what caused this sudden reversal. What were the tweet’s defects? Was it a simple typo? Was there some fatal miscalculation of humor or analysis? Was it a clumsily calibrated subtweet? What, in other words, was the proximity to disaster? I, too, have deleted the occasional tweet; I know the sudden chill of having said something misjudged or stupid, the panicked fumble to strike it from the official record of utterance, and the furtive hope that nobody had time to read it.
Any act of writing creates conditions for the author’s possible mortification. There is, I think, a trace of shame in the very enterprise of tweeting, a certain low-level ignominy to asking a question that receives no response, to offering up a witticism that fails to make its way in the world, that never receives the blessing of being retweeted or favorited. The stupidity and triviality of this worsens, rather than alleviates, the shame, adding to the experience a kind of second-order shame: a shame about the shame. My point, I suppose, is that the possibility of embarrassment is ever-present with Twitter—it inheres in the form itself unless you’re the kind of charmed (or cursed) soul for whom embarrassment is never a possibility to begin with.
Read the rest at The New Yorker.