The Paris Review, long recognizable for its fat, little, bookish profile, has been redesigned under the watch of new editor Philip Gourevitch. Also gone is the practice of emblazoning the cover with an abstruse piece of art (as opposed to, say, the New Yorker) and nothing else. “Maybe no one thought it before Mr. Plimpton died, but the venerable old magazine did need an update.” says Bud, who’s got a full accounting of the venerable literary magazine’s new look (and contents).
This is why I love the New Yorker. Right when I’m about to go on vacation, they put out the debut fiction issue, perfect for the beach. In fact, I still vividly recall reading an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in a debut fiction issue while at the beach a few summers ago. This year’s stories look interesting. There’s “An Ex-Mas Feast” (read it here) by Uwem Alpan, “a Jesuit Priest from Nigeria.” There’s “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, whose first novel, The Best People in the World, comes out nest year. And there’s “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell (read it here.)I don’t know why, but I always feel faint stirrings of jealousy when the debut fiction issue comes out. I’m not exactly an aspiring novelist, but I think it riles people up to see unknowns on such a big stage, the biggest in short fiction. I just have to remind myself that there are much more deserving things to decry in the literary world than the debut fiction issue. That way I can enjoy the stories with my emotions unclouded.Update: I read the stories and here’s what I thought.
Alone (I’d be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit – at least if you’re not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine’s readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer’s dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis’ equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one’s mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the rich are different from you and me”). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten – one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten’s superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten’s style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they’re otherwise (as many of Vogue’s contributors – to other, unintentionally comic ends – do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, “Temptation Island,” is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor’s office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month’s article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat – but that’s a story for another time.And of his wife’s spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife’s sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don’t have a precise working definition of “lyrical realism” it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers – Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky – and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the “brute materiality of the external world.”As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity – who exactly is the “I” telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away – including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator’s identity – what remains is the “brute materiality” of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, “it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry.”But poetry, as Auden famously put it, “makes nothing happen,” and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its “pure facticity.” The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
In the summer of 2004, in what seemed like a simpler time when the Millions was barely a year old, and I was still a couple of months away from adding my two-cents worth (Canadian) to it, Max introduced me to the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski. While reading Shah of Shahs, and marveling at the reportage and at the powerful, witty and humane voice jumping off of the page, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a translation, and that not only were Kapuscinski’s magnificent words and images being translated, but William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand had managed to capture the subtleties of his literary voice.Delivering those translated words so that the reader gets the full experience – all the nuances hidden in the shadows of the language – seems to me to be a monumental task. Think, then, what is involved in translating something which is entirely image. Where the flashes of color, and the music of the words, the rhythms and the tones, must all be conveyed to the innocent reader. Think what must be involved when translating poetry.A recent Globe and Mail article, “An Athlete in the extreme sport of poetry,” profiles Erin Moure, who, along with Robert Majzels, has translated Nicole Brossard’s Cahier de roses et de civilisation (Notebook of Roses and Civilization).On the seemingly daunting task of translating Brossard’s poetry, Moure says: “There are challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain. Plus, Brossard does things in French that are syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”The article also discusses the collaborative method that Moure and her co-translator used. Moure would “do three pages in a row, then Bob’ll translate three pages in a row, the next three pages, and so on.”As an interesting aside, Moure also wishes that there were other translations of Brossard’s book: “You can only start to see the texture of the original language really, really when there’s more than one translation.”