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I am pressing my fingertips down onto the keys of my laptop, a sequence of movements that is somehow making these words appear on a screen in front of me. At some point, over the next couple of days, once a sufficient number of words has appeared on that screen in a manner I can just about live with, I will sign in to my e-mail account and send a file containing them to an editor several thousand miles away. Not long after that, you will be able to read these words on a screen much like the one I am looking at, or perhaps on a smaller screen, one that you hold in the palm of your hand as a talisman against the passing minutes and hours.

Read the rest at The New Yorker

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

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.

It feels like both an obligation and a frivolity to point out that Teju Cole’s new novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, is neither new nor, by any sort of conventional metric, a novel. The first negation is pretty straightforward: It was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, four years or so before Open City, the book on which Cole’s reputation is largely based. The second is a bit more contentious, in the way that it’s always contentious, and probably finally pointless, to attempt to define what is and is not a novel. Perhaps it’s enough to say—of this book and of Cole’s writing generally—that it leaves in its wake a trail of ambiguities, an artful wreckage of formal expectations.

Open City, one of the more stylish and commanding literary entrances of the last few years, seemed to present itself as one kind of fiction, before revealing itself in its closing pages as something else entirely, something more darkly opaque than the thing you thought you had been reading. The novel’s narrator, Julius, is a young Nigerian psychiatrist in New York, who assuages the stress of his work and the essential solitude of his life by taking long walks and pursuing circuitous, nomadic meditations on the urban environment, the past, the experience of migration. The book exhibits a certain desolate preoccupation with the elision of historical fact, with atrocities too immense to be countenanced by the cultures in whose names they have been committed. “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast,” says one of Julius’ patients, a writer crippled by depression in the midst of researching a book about 17th-century European settlers and their encounters with the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today.”

Read the rest at Slate

 

Stanislas Wawrinka’s defeat of Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open last weekend was a milestone not just in the career of a 28-year-old Swiss tennis player but also in the posthumous life of one of the 20th century’s most unswervingly pessimistic writers. This is the first time a Grand Slam title has ever been won by a player with a Samuel Beckett quotation tattooed on his body (barring some unexpected revelation that, say, Ivan Lendl got himself a Waiting for Godot–themed tramp stamp before beating John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final). The words in question, inked in elaborately curlicued script up the length of Wawrinka’s inner left forearm, are these: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The quotation is from Worstward Ho, a late, fragmentary prose piece that is one of the most tersely oblique things Beckett ever wrote. But those six disembodied imperatives, from the text’s opening page, have in their strange afterlife as a motivational meme come to much greater prominence than the text itself. The entrepreneurial class has adopted the phrase with particular enthusiasm, as a battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, evenvalorized. Sir Richard Branson, that affable old sage of private enterprise and bikini-based publicity shoots, has advocated from on high the benefits of Failing Better. He breaks out the quote near the end of an article about the future of his multinational venture capital conglomerate, telling us with characteristic self-assurance that it comes “from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”

Read the rest at Slate.

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