About six months ago, I bought an iPad through the online Apple Store. Some three or four business days later, a DHL guy appeared at my door and presented me with a rectangular package. I signed for it and carried it into the kitchen, where I selected from the cutlery drawer a knife sufficiently sharp and sturdy for the job of slicing open the formidable carapace of packaging. I removed the white plastic DHL bag, then made my way through the outer husk of plain cardboard to the compact tabernacle of the Apple packaging proper. As I did so, I became aware of a voice in my head. This voice was briskly self-assured, astringently American; it spoke not to me, but through me, and the words it spoke were these: Okay, let’s go ahead and unbox this sucker.
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By the time I arrived at York Hall Health and Leisure Centre in Bethnal Green on Sunday, the Boring 2012 conference had been underway for about an hour, and I was concerned that I might already have had more than enough tedium for one day. Due to a combination of Irish fog and English gales, I had spent 90 minutes sitting on a runway in Dublin and a further 40 or so circling Heathrow as the plane awaited a landing slot. The irony of my morning—that I was subjecting myself to the boredom and frustration of air travel in order to attend a conference dedicated to the most boring topics imaginable—was not lost on me, but as my flight looped repeatedly over greater London, I was too bored and frustrated to properly appreciate it.
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A balding man in his early-to-mid 40s sits at a kitchen table, wearing a blue cardigan and a look of placid expectancy. A number of items are arranged in front of him on the tabletop—a paperback book, a large souvenir coffee mug, a plastic container. A child’s voice, off camera, can be heard giddily shouting “Go, Daddy, Go!” The man then begins a dextrous finger-drum solo; he starts out tamely enough, laying down a stolid 4/4 with the heel and fingers of his right hand, but gradually builds toward a sustained run of jazzy showboatery, using the various items as improvised kick drums, snares and cymbals. By the end of the two-minute video, he’s tearing it up like a Gene Krupa of kitchenalia, maintaining his benignly cocksure facial expression all the while, but clearly getting a kick out of how much of a kick his children are getting out of him. You could enjoy watching this YouTube video without knowing anything about this man—it’s entertaining enough just seeing a father thrilling his kids with an interlude of incidental virtuosity—but it adds an extra layer of counterintuitive delight to know that he is in fact James Wood, New Yorker staff writer and, arguably, one of the most influential cultural critics of his generation.
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In the novel “Jerusalem,” by the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, there is a character named Mylia, who suffers from schizophrenia. One of the manifestations of Mylia’s illness is a strangely intimate experience of, and relationship with, inanimate objects. She is, for example, disgusted by shoes because of their dumb subservience to people, their total self-abnegation as things to be possessed and used. “Not even a dog,” she reflects, “was as submissive as a shoe.” She is also deeply disturbed by eggs: “Eggs, all eggs, contained a kind of concrete, material altruism that Mylia couldn’t find in anything else in the world. Eggs appear because they want to disappear.” This anthropomorphic intimacy leads her to handle things in a way that appears somehow unseemly.
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How much ambiguity can a novel sustain while still keeping a firm hold on the reader’s attention? How much apparently crucial information can be withheld before the reader begins to feel manipulated or, worse, overlooked? These questions may not have been on Stig Saeterbakken’s mind when he was writing Self-Control, but they were certainly on mine when I was reading it. And the answer to both – if the extent to which I found the novel compelling is anything to go by – seems to be a surprisingly large amount.
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Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño
Originally published in Stonecutter Issue 2
Roberto Bolaño’s introduction to a 1999 Spanish edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with one of those great and flagrant generalizations for which, among many other things, his writing is remarkable. “All American novelists,” he announces, “including those who write in Spanish, at some point get a glimpse of two books looming on the horizon. These books represent two paths, two structures, and above all two plots. Even sometimes: two fates. One is Moby-Dick and the other is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The fact that the piece, which is included towards the end of Between Parentheses, is entitled “Our Guide to the Abyss” is only the first clue to Bolaño’s readers that he is writing at least as much about his own fiction here as he is about Mark Twain’s (the abyss, the empty presence of absence itself, is a symbol as central to Bolaño’s work as the labyrinth is to that of his great hero Borges). Read More
A word of warning: If you decide to download Rob Delaney’s new online-only standup special, you should be prepared to listen to a great many reflections on, and observations about, the subject of semen. Delaney does tackle a variety of other (mostly autobiographical) topics throughout the course of the 60 minute special—unsuccessful experiments in anal sex, the methodology of masturbation, torrential public diarrhea, flatulence as a weapon of class warfare—but it’s to semen that he most frequently returns. It’s the conspicuous leitmotif of his work.All That Jizz probably wouldn’t be a commercially viable title to give a comedy special (even a self-released download-only comedy special), but it would have been no less accurate than the brusquely utilitarian Live at the Bowery Ballroom.
Read the rest at Slate