Nothing Is True-Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin

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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

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Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

Daring to Eat the Peach: The Nature of Being Possessed

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Sitting at a table crowded with red and green and blue glazed tajine pots filled with mutton and saffron couscous that smelled of cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek alongside bowls of pickled plums and hardboiled eggs, while shakily holding a small cup of astringent anise mahia, William S. Burroughs first heard the ecstatic music of Boujelod—the Father of Skins; the Father of Fear—the goat god. Burroughs was obsessed with the mysterious place where words, and music, and images seem to come into a mind as if from without, the cursing and blessing of inspiration. He travelled to Morocco in 1954, three years after he shot his wife, Jean Volmer, to death in their Mexico City apartment; she was drunk and Burroughs was on benzos, they were performing a trick they called "their William Tell act." The murder "brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out," Burroughs recalled in his autobiographical novel Queer. The author lived in the Tangiers International Zone, administered by a lackadaisical alliance of Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and the United States, enjoying the cheap dope and willing young men, but at the 1001 Nights restaurant and club he would hear the possessor, the font of all inspiration. The Dark One Himself. Burroughs was always square in appearance, in keeping with his wealthy St. Louis upbringing and his Harvard education. At the 1001 Nights he'd have been conspicuous wearing a characteristic grey flannel suit and skinny black tie, a wool fedora and leather wingtips. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked and dead-eyed. Six musicians sat in a circle, wearing long, loose, green djellabas, rough woolen burnouses, and Berber caps. They played the double-reed ghaita, the goat-skinned tebel, the ceramic djarbouga, the picked gimbri, the bowed kamanja, and the bamboo lira. A single droning note pulsated, and then a squeal of other instruments would begin to play, the staccato vibration of a reed, the discordant strumming of the lute, the wafting of tones back and forth, a piercing ululation. Vocalists sang in multiphonics, what's known as "throat singing," wherein a single person produced two or three notes at once. Instrumentalists used circular breathing, inhaling through their nose and exhaling into their horns and flutes in a continuous stream, so that there are no pauses, no rests. No melody was discernible, but the rhythm was a complicated cacophony; the silence between notes was as deafening as the notes themselves. A flickering. To fall into their trance was like being hypnotized by a fire. Hallucinatory, incessant, relentless, incantatory, apocalyptic. A barefoot boy, clad entirely in goat-skins, brandishes two olive branches and begins to dance, an incarnation of Boujelod himself. A being better known as Pan.   The musicians were from Jajouka, deep in the inhospitable Ahl-Srif mountains of the western Sahara. Seven nights a week, six of them would perform at 1001 Nights before a motley audience of diplomats and expatriates, prostitutes and bohemians. The restaurant would be packed with curious foreigners, shoes scuffing the zellij and leaning against walls decorated with woven tapestries featuring intricate ogee designs, lattice-worked brass lanterns illuminating Arabesque stencils on the ceiling. Sisters and mothers of the men worked as servers and in the kitchen, where the head chef was a Jajouka local, Mohamed Hamri. Only 21, Hamri would go on to become a folklorist who recorded the legends of the musicians; he had introduced a friend of the owner to their music three years before. Hamri first met the American composer and writer Paul Bowles in a Tangiers train station; the latter in turn introduced the young Moroccan to the Anglo-American avant-garde writer Brion Gysin, who owned and managed the 1001 Nights. At a beachfront festival in 1950, the two Westerners would first listen to the droning trance music, with Gysin recalling that he had thought "I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I want to hear it every day." Of the three men who would first introduce the Master Musicians of Jajouka (as they'd come to be marketed) to a Western audience—Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs—the least interesting person is the last, and William S. Burroughs was fascinating. Bowles had come for the same sorts of reasons many libertines had—Morocco afforded him more freedom than was countenanced by his conservative family. Half a century was spent in Tangiers, which Bowles first visited in 1931 with his lover, the composer of Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. Cosmopolitan, elegant, charming, and handsome, Bowles had an impressive roster of friends, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Koestler, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Christopher Isherwood was supposedly so taken with Bowles that he borrowed the name for the female protagonist of The Berlin Stories, immortalized by Liza Minelli in the musical adaptation Cabaret. During his time in Morocco, Bowles equally mastered musical composition and writing. Authoring dozens of scores for his own plays, he also wrote novels such as his dark Tangiers nocturne Let It Come Down, with its axiom that "We're all monsters… It's the age of monsters." Critics have noted that Bowles's music was light and his writing was dark, perhaps detecting the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian borrowed from Jajouka. The English-born Gysin's mind vibrated at the same frequency as his American friend, and he was even more promiscuous, a brilliant dilettante, an experimental poet and novelist, performance artist, calligrapher, psychedelic theorist, and inventor, who wanted to push literature to the same extremes as modern art. His biographer John Geiger describes him in Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brian Gysin as the "most influential cultural figure of the Twentieth Century that most people have never heard of." Many influential people knew of Gysin, however, as he befriended Jean Genet, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. More than anyone, he's associated with Burroughs, who first dismissed Gysin as a mere restauranteur catering to "uppity queens" (himself included), but after the Englishmen's death in 1986, Burroughs admitted that his frequent collaborator was the only other writer whom he respected. The two expanded on the "cut-up" method of composition, a means of using selective randomization to pull inspired words from the ether. First practiced by Dadaist poets like Tristan Tzara, the original cut-up method involved taking an original composition, and cutting words and phrases out with scissors, and then rearranging them into new texts, letting unseen correspondences, similarities, congruencies guide your hand as if an oracle. Gysin and Burroughs developed a variation they called "fold-in," where two separate pages of writing are folded in half, and then combined, so that the new composition is read across. Their collaborative 1977 novel The Third Mind was written this way, wherein the "first step in re-creation is to cut the old lines that hold you right where you are sitting now," something also on display in Burroughs's most famous book Naked Lunch, a work of "magic and taboos, curses and amulets." What drew Gysin and Burroughs together was the incantatory aspect of literature, whereby the manipulation of words can generate divinations and conjurations. "The poets are supposed to liberate the words," wrote Gysin in Let the Mice In, "not chain them in phrases… Writers don't own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody?" The two explored how language could be combined and recombined, cut up and rearranged, how words can be as if a virus, where thinking happens on the page rather than in the head. Enthusiasts of tarot, astrology, and I Ching, Gysin and Burroughs understood inspiration as a form of possession, as an intersection between astral realms and the typewriter. This was magic as literary criticism. Heightened consciousness—meditation, drugs, sex—has often been used to pull the brain from its doldrums, to elevate it, to capture Icarian fire that's then transcribed into mere books. "Magic calls itself the Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space," Gysin is quoted as saying in Matthew Levi Stevens’s essay for Beatdom. They heard in the flickering drone of Jajouka the alchemical discordance of tone and note, that spirit kingdom where inspiration resides. "In Morocco, magic is practiced…assiduously," Gysin claimed, "ecstatic dancing is the music of the brotherhoods [that] may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper." Long after 1001 Nights closed, Gysin invited an English recording artist to Jajouka to record their rites. The musician stayed only for a day in 1969, but gathered enough material that an album of their heretofore unheard music would be released. He played the saxophone brilliantly, among other instruments, for a group named the Rolling Stones, and the album he produced was entitled Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, finally released two years after he returned to his East Sussex estate where he drowned to death in his swimming pool at the prescribed age of 27. "Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name," Mick Jagger croons on "Sympathy for the Devil," the most electric of tracks on the Stones' 1968 album Beggars Banquet. In the Jean-Luc Godard documentary of the same name, Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts plays a Jajouka drum in one scene, a full year before his bandmate would decamp to Morocco. If there is a mystery about its provenance it's unconsciously clarified in the primal syncopation that thrums through the track, with an answer in the chorus. The Master Musicians of Jajouka sound far more ominous than the Rolling Stones, and "Sympathy for the Devil" is already ominous, but the distinctive, bestial, Luciferian rhythm in both the rock song and the religious rites are paeans to giving the devil his due. Not to worshiping the devil, you must understand, but acknowledging these things of darkness that permeate creation. Music, poetry, writing, they are all inspired by the muse and inhabited by it, they allow us to be possessed by such forces, but they also exorcise them. Hamri wrote in Tales from Jajouka that "Such a powerful contact, with a sound and pitch so high, could be used with the blessing of Allah like a surgical tool to heal sick minds." Such music had first been brought to Jajouka by Boujelod, when a shepherd named Attar had dared to sleep in a forbidden cave near the village. Awakened by the goat god playing his pipes, Attar came to an agreement, whereby Boujelod would teach the shepherd his music, as long as the man kept such rhythms secret. Attar broke his promise, and in retaliation Boujelod demanded a bride from Jajouka as a sacrifice. The canny villagers sent out a young woman known to be insane, and her frenetic dancing exhausted Boujelod, who departed. Subsequently, the descendants of Attar have performed a pantomime of that incident every year, the ritual linked to both fertility and inspiration (for what is the latter but a variety of the former?). Ostensibly derived from the Islamic Sufi mysticism that's prevalent throughout Ahl-Srif, a realm of saint's shrines and dervish lodges, this music recalled far earlier traditions. Anthropologist Edvard Westermarck provides a hypothesis as to the origin of such rites in his anachronistically titled 1933 study Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. Morocco is where Moorish-Spanish Al-Andalus kisses Northern Africa, a land whose dreams had been spoken in Arabic, Latin, Sephardic Ladino, Carthaginian, Phoenician, the Silha, Kabyle, and Tamazight languages of the Berbers, and the lost language of Silbo Gomero, spoken by the Guanche, who until the 15th century communicated in whistle, though ultimately murdered by the Spanish during their invasion of the Canary Islands. Deserts buffeted between the pagan and Jewish, the Christian and Islamic. Into this fragrant tagine, Westermarck detects a flavor of Roman origin, noting the similarity between the rituals of Jajouka and the festivals of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Kalends, as all of those festivals featured a penitent "dressed up in skins of some sacrificed goats … to benefit [the participants] and especially to expel illness… a scapegoat as well as a positive expeller of evil," Westermarck wrote. Gysin was blunter in his assessment of the practices, writing in The Third Mind that "Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam." Timothy Leary was even more anachronistic, claiming that the musicians were a "4,000-year-old rock band." Certain correspondences can be drawn between Jajouka and the scapegoat as described in the biblical book of Leviticus, or the various Dionysian rites of the Maenads practiced in the classical world. But there are, to be sure, problems with Gysin's enthusiasms, not least of which is the barely concealed colonialist condescension that deigns to tell a group of men who are otherwise pious Muslims that he understands their own culture better than them, the orientalist assumption that a white Englishmen would be the best interpreter of Jajouka. They were, after all, a guild blessed by the Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed Schiech, whose shrine was still in the village. Still, it's fair to note that the ritual of Boujelod has nothing obvious to do with Islam, and that if Westermarck and Gysin claim a Dionysian origin, it's not necessarily ridiculous, as the Romans had ruled in North Africa for 500 years, and its possible some traditions may have endured, even if their origin was occluded. Pagan rites had survived Christianity in sublimated European folk rituals, after all; in the Abruzzi village of Cocullo, not far from where my grandfather was born, the Festa dei Serpari honors St. Domenico on his feast day by parading his statue through the streets, decorated with a garland of writhing serpents, a practice derived directly from the Umbrian snake goddess Angitia. Perhaps there is something archetypal in these animalistic flourishes, all of those snakes and goats appearing across cultures but often connotating the same thing. From bacchanals and the Maenads to the witches' sabbath and Black Mass, the goat has been endowed with ambivalent symbolism. Dionysus's reveries and the orgies of Satan are not exactly parallel, but they're not perpendicular either. Possession was strongly associated with the Dionysiac rites when the god was imported from the Thracians and he was quickly conflated with madness, irrationality, intoxication, and poetry. As E.R. Dodds writes in The Greeks and the Irrational, Dionysius was "a god of ecstatic prophecy," "the patron of a new art, the art of the theater," who was a "Master of Illusions," and both the "cause of madness and the liberator from madness." Dionysius wasn't evil—but he was dangerous. This is true no matter what name he took—Pan, Orpheus, Bacchus, Ogoun, Sucellus, Loki, Tezcatzontecati, Osiris, Lucifer. Boujelod. Pleased to meet you. As Bachier Attar, a musician in the guild, told a New York Times reporter in 1995, "We say that jajouka music can wake the devils from the ground."   Part of giving the devil his due is performing such rituals as an honor, but also as a means of corralling that dangerous spark from whence poetry and song originate. The penitent in the skins of Boujelod is both possessed by the creature and exorcizing him—this has much to do with control as it does with abandon. Friedrich Nietzsche writes that those who "turn away with pity or contempt from phenomena," who dismiss them as mere "folk diseases," are "poor creatures [who] have no idea how blighted and ghostly this 'sanity' of theirs sounds when the glowing life of Dionysiac revelers thunders past them." Nietzsche has no time for prigs who are "bolstered by a sense of their own sanity," and when it came to Jajouka that was definitely not the case with Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs, of whom many adjectives could be applied, but sanity would be one used sparingly. The latter two in particular were drawn to the archaic and ecstatic undercurrent of this music. Both were obsessed with the supernatural, the divine, the occult— the buried question sung by Orpheus but long dismissed by the rationally inclined as rank superstition—from whence is the origin of poems? Burroughs made clear his stake, writing in Queer that "My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanation," for he is speaking of a "definite possessing entity," while Gysin, as quoted by Stevens, declared "I talk a new language… I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration."     When Bowles was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia—he dropped out and moved to Paris, then Tangiers—he was partial to certain subjects. Gregorian Chants. Duke Ellington. The Blues. And T.S. Eliot. That Anglophilic monarchist—an upper-class Missourian just like Burroughs—was steadfastly Apollonian, and yet he is not short on Dionysian evocations. The Waste Land was Bowles's favorite poem, but in the "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the titular fool asks himself "Do I dare. Disturb the universe?" Though this is not what Eliot himself meant, the line is an apt summation of what inspiration is—it's both to be disturbed by the universe and to disturb the universe. For after all, you are a small sentient portion of that far larger medium of reality—we are all microcosms of that immeasurable thing—we are small parts of the universe that has gained consciousness. Prufrock asks himself "Do I dare eat a peach?" and in the context of the poem it's an indictment of the aging narrator's self-seriousness, but it relates well to disturbing the universe, for fruit has always facilitated the fall (and there's no inspiration if you're stuck in perfect Eden). Augustine stole some pears in the marketplace of Hippo, not far from Morocco, and then threw them away, the point of the filching to revel in wickedness. "I loved my fall," Augustine writes in his fourth-century Confessions, "not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself." Augustine identified such transgressions as a manifestation of that ur-lapse, when Adam and Eve ate another piece of forbidden fruit. In the West it has traditionally been depicted as an apple. Some have hypothesized it was a pomegranate. Perhaps it was a pear or peach. Regardless, we're to understand that fatal act as the moment when everything went wrong, when humanity's rebelliousness condemned us to exile. And yet it's just as easy to see this decision as the first fruit of inspiration, a fortunate fall that imbued them with the audacious ability to create, which had previously only been the eternal purview of the Lord. Every inspired act was thus a faint echo of both God's creation and the self-creation of the fall that propelled Adam and Eve to points east. Idiosyncratic as such an interpretation might be, it has ample heretical precedent, with the orthodox Hippolytus recording that the Gnostic Monoimus had preached that all must "Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find Him in yourself." God was a mere demiurge, but the higher creator—often associated with the serpent—was the liberator. As with Dionysus and his snakes, or Angitia and hers, this liberation is the teaching of how to create, it is the imparting of inspiration. Both freedom and madness can result. A dangerous present. Hans Jonas writes in The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity that "it is understand that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so we have an aim in eternity." A flash of inspiration is both evidence that we come from Eden and that we no longer live there; a brief reflection of what it feels like to create as God. A divinely imparted gift. A dangerous present.       "Let me pass through the arch," wrote Federico Garcia Lorca in "Double Poem of Lake Eden" from Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon (no relation) and Stephen F. White, composed while the Spanish poet and playwright was staying in rural Vermont. With a Maenad's intensity, Lorca intoned "Here you are drinking my blood… while my eyes are shattered by aluminum/and drunken voices in the wind." This is a mystic who knows the secret rites, who sees in creation "my liberty, my human love/in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants." Bowles was intensely moved by Lorca, this demon-haunted poet who had made his stand in fascist Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, a republican, anarchist, socialist, and most of all Spaniard who agitated for liberation against the Francoists, and who in some Andalusian field in 1936, five years after the American first arrived in Tangiers, suffered a bullet in the brain because of it. "Then I realized I had been murdered/They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches/… but they did not find me. /They never found me? /No. They never found me," reads an entire lyric from Poet in New York, presciently written seven years before his assassination. Appropriate, because just as Lorca was murdered on some road to Granada in the dead of night, a blood-sacrifice for the Spanish people, so was Dionysus torn apart and resurrected on the road to Thebes. In 1943, Bowles adapted some of Lorca's lyrics for a zarzuela entitled The Wind Remains, with Bernstein conducting the opening night. Long fascinated with Spanish culture, and Lorca's presentation of the nation as a death-haunted realm of pathos, where the bull fight was a Dionysian sacrament and stern Catholicism was the operative mood, Bowles also translated dialogue from Lorca's play Yerma, which he incorporated into an opera of that same name. Lorca's original was a pagan tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks in its horrific tale of a childless young woman driven to madness and murder by her inability to conceive, a play about the perils of inspiration deferred. After she has strangled her husband to death, and thus forever precluded the ability of having a baby with him, Yerma screams "Don't come near me, because I've killed my child. I've killed my child with my own hands!" A modern ritualization of that murder from Euripides’s The Bacchae, when Pentheus is murdered by his own mother after she has been entranced by Dionysus. No modern aesthetician of darkness was as proficient as Lorca, for none was quite as blunt about the chimerical nature of inspiration. He was the theorist of duende, his term for the irrational, ineffable, inscrutable nature of the creative spark, independent from positivist and rationalist justification for where ideas originate, borrowing the name for his term from the malevolent spirit that populates Spanish folklore, a wicked gnome who can both give and take away. "Play and Theory of the Duende" was Lorca's 1933 treatise on the ways in which certain works of art reflect this dark spirit, and in the process embodies qualities that are intangible, authentic, earthy, deathly. "The duende, then, is a power, not a work," writes Lorca, differentiating between inspiration and that which results. "It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation." For Lorca, the duende is explicitly Dionysian. Any type of art is capable of both being inspired by and producing duende, but Lorca thought that music, dance, and poetry had an energy that made them more amenable. Certain artists are obvious possessors of duende—Robert Johnson and his Satanic blues, most of Bob Dylan, all of Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and of course Sketches of Spain, everything in William Blake, Joan Didion’s sentences in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Waits’s voice on Frank's Wild Years, Toni Morrison’s narratives, The Velvet Underground and Nico, particularly "The Black Angel's Death Song," young Marlon Brando, Jackson Pollock’s splatters, the verse of Sylvia Plath, John Coltrane’s saxophone, and of course the musicians of Jajouka. "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms," writes Lorca. "It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."        Inspiration arrives mysteriously; it is not necessarily freely chosen, but comes as if a grace. No artist or writer can quite say why or how inspiration comes, but they can often say where or when, which means that there are ways of summoning her. "The duende is an enabling figure," writes poet Edward Hirsch in The Angel and the Demon: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, "like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might be otherwise be invisible… It surfaces wherever and whenever a demonic anguish suddenly charges and electrifies a work of art in the looming presence of death." Dreams have always been a conduit for inspiration. Keith Richards awoke from a bender one night, grabbed his guitar and recorded a riff, in the morning he played back the hook for "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Around the same time, the entire melody to "Yesterday" was imparted into the slumbering mind of Paul McCartney, so mathematically perfect that he feared it was something that he'd heard before and forgotten. The impetus to Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley after an evening of horror stories told amongst friends in a Swiss villa; that night in a fretful dream she "saw the hideous phantasm of a man sketched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion." John Milton similarly drew from night visions, claiming that the blank verse of Paradise Lost was directly transmitted into his skull by his muse Urania, and that in the morning the blind poet's mind had to be "milked" by his amanuensis (a troubling metaphor). Drugs and alcohol have always been a treatment for summoning the muse, albeit often with diminishing returns. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his lush "Kubla Kahn" stoned on opium, with visions of "gardens bright with sinuous rills, /Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree," until his reveries were interrupted by that infamous person from Porlock banging on his door. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote his lyrics "Looking up, I find the moon bright/Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness" while drunk, and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat with his celebration of "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou/singing beside me in the wilderness" was written with a cup of shiraz in hand. For a genius, an intoxicated mind can sometimes be the royal road to wisdom; for myself it was more often the muddy ditch to a hangover. Since getting sober I've found that walking and a shower just as often bring inspiration.    Life is an ever-obvious source, experience mixed within the smithy of the unconscious mind in the creation of something new. Adventure, exploration, journeying have all been used to discover the intangible. There's a reason why the perceived exoticism of Tangiers drew Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs. Edward Gibbon resolved to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while on a gentleman's grand tour of Europe, where "as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter… the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind." Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage drew no inspiration from the author's own experience, his having been born six years after Appomattox. Without Manassas or Gettysburg, Antietam or the Wilderness to draw on, Crane rather explained that it was "sense of the rage of conflict on the football field" from whence he appropriated verisimilitude. To be inspired by an earlier work of art is common enough, to understand those that came before you as your muses. As a student of mine pointed out, both Dante's The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are biblical fan fiction. There is no Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote without those "vain and empty books of chivalry," no Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary without Don Quixote, no Julian Barnes’s Flaubert's Parrot without Madame Bovary. A divinely ordered chain of influence radiating out through all of that which we write and read, inspiration touching everything like light from the Big Bang. There are the iconic means of inspiration as well—ecstasy, madness, visions. Blake was gifted with "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars," which initiated him into his prophetic vocation; almost two centuries later, while Ginsberg masturbated to some lines of Blake in his Greenwich Village apartment, he heard the dead poet whisper in his ear "For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life."      Plutarch writes in The Obsolescence of Oracles that there was a chthonic message relayed throughout the Peloponnese two millennia ago, but rather than whispered it was shouted. During the reign of Tiberius and when the fishermen Thamus heard an echoing voice declare, "Are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead." Goat-legged spirit of the woods, the satyr so often conflated with Dionysus (at least by many of the mystery cults), the god of fertility, sexuality, and inspiration, had expired. The Church Fathers naturally saw in Plutarch an allegorical account of the birth of their own God who would die, and certainly paganism itself is replete with stories of perishing deities who descend only to be resurrected. Pan is, like Dionysus, another dangerous god, a wild and intoxicated being who imparts wisdom, or a version of it, to the drunk, the foolish, the ecstatic. Foolish to think that any such god can ever die, at least not really. Look at the first-century marble pulled from the Vesuvian ash of Herculaneum, goat-hooved, bearded, caprine Pan with his flute, arm around Daphnis, staring with Arcadian lust at the shepherd. Then look at Peter Paul Rubens’s orange sfumato-hazed print of the demigod from 16 centuries later, the stolid Catholic presenting the creature in odalisque repose, staring into the eyes of the viewer with the same intensity as that shepherd more than a millennium before. Pan has a way of possessing still. Dionysius, too. Plutarch was wrong—no oracle can ever be silenced. William Butler Yeats claimed that his poems composed through automatic writing were compelled by a force beyond him, a djinn whom he named Leo Africanus. The Swedish artistic visionary Hilma af Klimt attributed her abstract masterpieces to a spirit which had possessed her, and by consulting a Ouija board, Sylvia Plath communed with a being who identified himself as Pan, writing in her poem "The Colossus" that she'd said to him "Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,/Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other." Even Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 2004 that his music had its origin from a bargain struck with the "Chief Commander… [of] this earth and in a world we can't see." Burroughs and Gysin, both being Americans, the former by birth and the latter naturalized, and perhaps in keeping with the national spirit, tried to summon Pan through technologized ecstasy with their infamous "Dreamachine." Not so dissimilar from Plath's Ouija board, and the two built a contraption that involved placing a cardboard cylinder with evenly cut slits onto a record player with a light-bulb descended within. A person watching the Dreamachine with closed eyes would experience 13 flickers per second—the goal was to hack the viewer's alpha waves and trigger ecstatic hallucinations, a psychedelic television for the unconscious. Whatever works. "Awe bears traces of the holy," writes Hirsch. "It is both rapturous and terrifying, because it puts one in the space of the transcendental, the world beyond." Both the musicians at Jajouka and those fortunate enough to hear them experience rapture, an overcoming, a transcendence, an ecstasy. It's similar as to when a singer gets lost within their own notes and the voice seems to come from some place other than within; what a painter experiences when certain colors and shapes announce themselves as if from without; how a writer can become immersed within the flow of composition in a way that's not totally themselves, that's not totally rational. To be possessed is to be in danger and to be dangerous; to be possessed is to be holy. Not long after Pan's death was announced across the Mediterranean, when the oracles were supposed to be dumb, the prophecies mute, and those penitents at Cocullo still handled their snakes and the initiates of Jajouka still played their flutes, and a different group of the possessed danced in ecstasy. In the eastern most corner of the empire, by those waters of Zion, and the assembled apostles felt "tongues of fire" come upon them as they gloriously chanted, each in their own spirit intoxicated language, this redemptive Babel that was Pentecost. They danced as if Maenads. Luke writes in the Book of Acts that the disciples were "filled with the Holy Spirit, and [they] began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance." How it must have sounded like a squealing of reeds, a blowing of pipes. Each person speaking in their own words, their own language, singular acts of inspired creation, of unique rendering. The only unpardonable sin we are told is to deny the Holy Spirit, to ignore the enchantments of this creation and the meaning that permeates everything, to not play the pipes when Pan calls. We are told in that same book of scripture that when Saul was on the road to Damascus, Christ appeared in a blinding light and told him that it was "hard to kick against the goads." The Spirit cannot be denied. Yet Luke's words had been said before, the gospel writer was quoting the playwright Euripides. They had first been uttered some five centuries before by Dionysus in The Bacchae. Old gods have a way of always being born again.     [millions_email]   Image Credit: Wikipedia.
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