When Richard Dawkins was named the world’s “Top Thinker” in a poll recently published by Prospect magazine, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the world—or at least that part of it that votes in such polls—must have an impoverished sense of what constitutes a vital or transformative intellectual figure. Any list of “thinkers” that doesn’t feature one woman in its top 10 (Arundhati Roy opened the scoring for the gals at No. 15) probably shouldn’t be taken completely seriously anyway, but the fact that it was the result of public voting does offer an insight into the kinds of ideas contemporary Anglo-American culture values most highly.
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It’s probably about time we agreed to give Colum McCann his own eponymous adjective. It would make sense, at any rate, to refer to a particular kind of audacious fictional gesture as “McCannian”. In his last book, the hugely successful Let the Great World Spin, a cluster of fictions were tied together by the sublime spectacle of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre.TransAtlantic opens in similarly McCannian fashion, with another airborne overture of grand historical significance. The recklessly affirmative act with which this book begins is the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Galway, by the British pilots Alcock and Brown in 1919. It’s the sort of expertly constructed set-piece McCann is particularly good at, and his imagistically lucid prose nicely captures the craziness and excitement of the moment.
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I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
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Lauren Eggert-Crowe interviewed me for The Rumpus about my ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. You can read it here.
In 2003, English writer James Lasdun taught a fiction workshop at a college in New York City. The star of the workshop was a woman in her 30s he calls “Nasreen”, who was working on a novel based on her family’s experiences in pre-revolutionary Iran. “There are seldom more than a couple of students in any workshop who seem natural writers, and they aren’t hard to spot,” Lasdun writes in the early pages of his memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. “It was evident to me, after a few paragraphs, that Nasreen was one of them. Her language was clear and vigorous with a distinct fiery expressiveness in the more dramatic passages that made it a positive pleasure to read.”
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We open with a close-up of a young woman’s face, shot from below. She gazes downward into the camera, her light brown hair hanging so low as to almost touch the lens. Her eyes are wide with what seems a kind of maternal solicitousness. When she speaks, she does so very quietly and softly, with a mild European accent that is difficult to place. “Hey, sweetie,” she says. “Do you feel a little bit better?” She touches the lens—the viewer’s face, your face—with a gentle finger. “Yeah, you’re having a fever, hun. I just have a little bit of a wet towel. I’ll just put it on your cheeks a little bit, and your forehead, okay? Yeah? OK, sweetie?” She turns away from you for a moment, and when she turns back, she has a blue facecloth in her hand; with this she sets about gently dabbing and wiping your poor, fevered little brow. It is no fun being sick, she tells you. But she wants you to know that you, her sweetheart, are going to be okay. For a further 13 minutes or so, these moistly whispered reassurances continue, until finally the screen goes black, and the whispering fades to silence.
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When you read David Shields, the first thing you learn is that he takes literature very seriously. The second thing you learn is how seriously he takes his taking seriously of literature. There’s a striking moment in the closing pages of his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” when he tells us that he is interested only in literature that obliterates the boundary between life and art. “Acutely aware of our mortal condition,” he writes, “I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).” If there were such a thing as a quintessentially Shieldsian pronouncement, this may be it, with its odd tonal mixture of the bombastic and the beseeching. Shields wants you to know that he is a writer for whom neither life nor art is a matter to be taken lightly.
Read the rest at The New York Times