The Shape of Thought: On Emily Hall’s ‘The Longcut’


At the end of Emily Hall’s debut novel The Longcut, the book’s unnamed narrator runs through the streets of New York toward the studio of an artist friend, brimming with a story to tell. “What was important,” she thinks to herself, “was to not find the right words.”
This revelation, the culmination of over a hundred pages of mental meanderings from the point of view of an artist struggling to pin down the meaning of her work, reminded me of a conversation published in The Margins in 2017, between the poet Jenny Zhang and the memoirist T Kira Madden, in which Zhang described a particularly tantalizing desire to “waste” words:

I want to be wasteful with language…. I do love spare prose, but there can be a misogynistic attitude about it. An attitude that says women should be prim and neat and not spill over and please take up as little space as possible and walk around with your shirt tucked in nicely and your slip can’t be showing; I don’t care about that.

Despite the degree to which this interview resonated with me at the time of its publication, I’ve been, like many writers, deferring the decision to shape language in a way that spills over and takes up space. I’ve long thought of unruly prose as an indulgence, a potential to be explored only under ideal circumstances. As if angling for permission to write this way, I have searched for examples of it in novels, particularly those about intelligent, neurotic women (for instance, Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind or Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky). In The Longcut, I found, possibly for the first time, a genuine expression of what Zhang might call “wasteful language.”
Hall’s prose has that white-hot, unedited, circular logic of a first draft, the kind that pursues every agitation and impulse down its respective rabbit hole. The narrator swerves, for instance, from discussing the cost of her materials to wondering “what was Cambridge blue, why was no aria by Handel as beautiful as ‘Forte e lieto,’ what was the difference between perhaps and maybe, when did a handshake begin and end.”
Conspicuously casting off traditional narrative concerns like rising action and character development, The Longcut blends elements of flânerie and stream of consciousness, allowing the narrator’s mind to grasp far and wide beyond the single day in which her story is circumscribed. When we first meet her, she is on her way to a potentially career-advancing meeting with a gallerist, a meeting set up by her artist friend whose work, we learn, is better-known and more conceptually unified than hers. However, all we know about our narrator and her art is that she works with a “small suitable camera.” She has made photographs of a granite egg, as well as a film about a construction crane outside her office window. She eventually gets the idea to make “carryaround sculptures”—small sculptures that would reside in people’s pockets—but cannot decide how these sculptures should look. “They—the carryaround sculptures—were an idea but not a form,” she admits.
For such an artist’s story, Hall chooses the form of a monologue that twists and turns over the course of a hurried walk down the “long side” of Central Park. Curiously, the author manages to write a perambulatory novel that, like Zeno’s arrow, stays fixed in one place. She also manages to lodge readers firmly in a woman’s subjectivity while withholding the vast majority of her emotions, memories, and motivations. It’s a fascinating project, one that prompts readers to ask in the end: what can wasteful, imprecise language—paired with a minimalist approach to plot and character—reveal about the world?
In The Longcut, this pairing boldly reveals the unmediated, unadorned, and unpolished shape of thought. The catharsis of thought—interrelated ideas and their movement through time—provides an unrelenting central tension. As is the case in novels like Brenda Lozano’s Loop or Ariana Harwicz’s Die My Love, the tension lies not in what the narrator will do next but in what she will think. Of this our narrator is conscious. She seems to know that the reader is analyzing her thought patterns. “Was my cognitive space a loop, a constant returning,” she wonders, “or was my cognitive space a knot, or not a knot but a tangle, a tangle anchored by a spike which if pulled would allow the tangle to instantly resolve itself.”
Tellingly, while filming a crane outside her office window, the narrator refuses to fast-forward the recorded footage; doing so, she argues, would prevent her from having the same experience as a potential viewer—that of the monotony of the office window punctuated by unpredictable appearances of an intriguing object. In another instance, the narrator admits she likes taking the long way from place to place—the “longcut”—more than she likes shortcuts, which, according to her logic, foreclose the process that separates art from mere gesture. In that both are winding and purposely time-consuming, the shape of the narrator’s thoughts is inextricably linked to the path she chooses to walk.
The world within this slim novel is clearly observed by a writer who shares the practical and conceptual concerns artists have for their art, as seen in the scrupulous attention Hall’s narrator pays to the durational aspect of her construction crane film. The book also scrutinizes social relations and behind-the-scenes labor in the art world, showing us how objects circulate and how discourse is molded. However, Hall’s criticality demystifies, as well as dampens, the subject matter of her book. Manhattan is maligned for being as wasteful in its presentation of art as the author is with language.
“I could be looking at page after page of gallery advertisements in an art magazine,” the narrator states, “or looking at artworks in one gallery space or gallery window after another,” and in these spaces, she laments, all the social transactions and work hours that have gone into making a work of art are flattened into empty signifiers that gesture noncommittally toward meaning—“art being the theme and different artists’ work being the variations.”
As a reader hungry for nuanced discussions of art and process, close visual analysis, and ekphrastic experimentation, this sentiment left me feeling both desensitized and impatient. I had hoped for either a more comprehensive or a more challenging take on the state of contemporary art. Instead, feeling glutted and numb, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art around her, the narrator likens the works to “so much merchandise on display… one thing meaning precisely as little as another.”
This particular topography, in which galleries sit on top of one another, competing for viewers’ scattered attention—this surplus of art and its social and economic scaffolding—is an attribute of many major cities, but not all. Those living in areas without such easy access to art spaces and galleries would likely be less blasé in dismissing large swaths of contemporary work as mere merchandise in a featureless grid. However, the satirical—and therefore purposely narrow—discussion of art in The Longcut reduces the endeavor to a binary: starting point versus end point, privacy versus exposure, question versus answer, the artist versus the commercial gallery. If anything, after reading this book I felt grateful that the art world consists of more players than just the artist and the gallerist, that it is buoyed by, as Hall’s narrator observes, vast and unruly networks of collaborators, for whom copiousness is not a burden to carry but a salve for the rest of life’s discontents.
Perhaps we can think of the state of contemporary art described in this novel the same way we approach Hall’s subversively “wasteful” approach to language. The shape of thought, in this case, morphs in accordance with the shape of the city. For the flâneuse, and particularly the artist, thought is a provisional, shifting street. The more the city rambles, the more it expands both upward and inward, so too does the mind.

Say You Were Gonna Make a Bomb: On Bud Smith’s ‘Teenager’


“Just let the happy couple have their happiness, okay. Shakespeare had it wrong. So did all the copycats. Everything didn’t have to end so viciously.”

Fiction writers are always taught to complicate. To engineer adversity, tension, so that, presumably, the final reading experience will feel more realistic—more like life as we know it, but not necessarily as we want it to be. But wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, everything worked out? In Bud Smith’s Teenager, it does—at least for a while. The novel’s first pages see Kody Rawlee Green, the 17-year-old protagonist, escape from a juvenile detention center with relative ease. The stolen keys work. No alarms go off. He manages to steal a car, a gun, canned goods, MREs, lottery tickets, a bunch of cash and a credit card before rescuing his girlfriend, Tella Carticelli, whom he fondly calls Teal Cartwheels, from getting shipped off to Rome by her abusive parents. What follows is a freewheeling, heartbreaking, too-much-too-fast-too-soon journey across America, where the only constant is the couple’s love for each other, their delirious visions for the future rooted in nothing but that all-consuming, all-forgiving love.

That Kody manages an impossible escape in the first two pages is a shrewd move by Smith. It invites the reader into this world with a challenge: if you can’t suspend your disbelief on page one, Teenager warns, you’re going to have a bad time. If, however, you can accept a certain degree of good fortune smiling upon impossible pursuits, if you can look nowhere else but forward, your reward is a beautiful, doomed adventure steeped in a lovely and vital escapism, crashing through the underbrush toward salvation.

For Kody, salvation—of any kind—is sorely needed. Of the many crimes that Kody commits throughout the book,  all in varying degrees of seriousness, the most shocking one comes at the start of Teenager, when he murders Tella’s parents. The righteousness of the act settles in as the narrative progresses: the parental figures inhabiting Teenager leave so much to be desired, the kids seem better off raising themselves. Kody’s birth parents abandoned him from the jump. His foster mother showed him affection, but was unperturbed when her intermittently violent boyfriend knocked him out of a tree, resulting in the metal plate in his head responsible for headaches, seizures, a general off-centeredness. Tella’s father regularly sexually abused her while her mother turned a blind eye, sleeping with ear plugs and a double layer of eye masks to block out the nighttime violations down the hall. The murder is an act of vigilantism, a crime of passion, albeit one with a pure intention behind it: when something harms the one you love, all you want is to destroy that thing, regardless of the consequences. Like Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov or Prince Myshkin of The Idiot, Kody Green is Smith’s holy fool, taking cues from nothing but his heart, the source of all pain and divine knowledge. Saints, Kody says, “heard instruction from the divine source and had scrambled eggs for brains because of it.”

Teenager is not expressly billed as YA (though it’s easy to see younger readers falling in love with it), but it illuminates the inner lives of teenagers from the sensitive perspective of a writer who hasn’t yet had the exuberant optimism of youth wrung out of him. He writes from what feels like an authentically teenaged vantage point, rather than as an adult trying to imagine how a teenager would see the world. Case in point: when Kody, who suffers from intense seizures, accidentally leaves out his mouthguard during an episode, he bites off a piece of his tongue. Tella finds him face down in a pool of blood on the bed. Instead of worrying about the tongue, she holds him, makes him feel better, they kiss, the tongue starts bleeding again. She understands that all he needs in that moment is her love, medical attention be damned. Meanwhile, I worry about infection and anxiously hope she can figure out how to cauterize the wound. That’s the kind of reader I’ve become—hopelessly practical, analytical to the point of pain.

But, as a moonstruck romantic, I am also Teenager’s target reader. One almost has to be in love—or at least remember being in love, or at least be uncynical enough to still feel charmed by a good love story—to get at the bedrock idea of Teenager, which is that love, regardless of time or place or circumstance, is always right and worth the trouble, and true love, to paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, tends to take care of its own. I was especially moved by the many parallels between the love story of Teenager and my own: like Kody and Teal, my husband and I knew—decided, solidified—that we were It for each other within a few days of meeting. We, like Kody and Teal, were also married by a guy named Bob after six months of courtship. Our wedding, like theirs, also lasted a whole ten minutes, catered with takeout French fries and cheap champagne.

Although various aides and adversaries regularly cross Teal and Kody’s path, it feels as if no one else truly exists in this rendition of America. This American landscape, populated with its cast of fallen angels—drunk boatmen, child psychics, every variety and flavor of pathetic cop—nonetheless feels drab, empty, so tightly are we locked into their world of two. Unlike Kerouac’s American landscape, which Teenager pays homage to, there is not much to learn from the people inhabiting it. For all their personalities, they are ghosts, passing visions in the mad rush to an ever-shifting idea of freedom. Juxtaposed with its timeless narrative, this makes the novel undeniably modern, speaking to our baseline isolation. Over-connected as we are, to the world, to each other, we are also, at the end of the day, just passing through.

Rae Buleri’s hypnotic illustrations, punctuating every chapter, stylistically remind of Ralph Steadman’s contributions to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as does Teenager’s organizing principle: no matter the question, the road is the answer (“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in,” writes Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing, “the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard…”) Deftly blending media influences and literary genres in ecstatic, rhythmic prose that echoes quintessential American greats, Teenager’s influx of influences is audible, visible—you hear Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”-inspired repetitions, Louis L’Amour in the sprawling, exuberant action sequences, Quentin Tarantino in the decadent violence and off-kilter dialogue, a salute to Thompson in the expansive meditation on the elusive (nonexistent?) American Dream—but Smith’s outsize, cinematic prose is wholly his own.

Teenager is about hope, trauma, self-reliance, the necessity of carving out a piece of the world for yourself—but above all else, it’s a testament to young love. Not necessarily love between young people, but love that is fresh and hungry and luminescent and lifesaving. Love that feels like salvation, for the time we get to have it.

The Punctuation of Life: On Chloe Caldwell’s ‘The Red Zone’


I was 15, sitting with friends in the schoolyard, having lunch and trading stories—as teenage girls do—about our periods. We griped, we commiserated: Swimming with a tampon in? So annoying! Getting your pubes stuck to a pad’s adhesive? The absolute worst! And what really ground my gears, I said, joining the chorus, was the immobilizing pain, shooting down your legs, radiating up your back, ripping through your abdomen, and then you become a receptacle for all that pain, and no thoughts could form because everything was pain. The other girls fell silent. Finally one spoke: “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.” The rest shook their heads. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound super normal,” another said.

Early in The Red Zone: A Love Story, author Chloe Caldwell has a similar experience. She is 31 and on a beach trip when she gets her period and is beset by severe cramps and diarrhea (both of which, I learned as a 12-year-old, are caused by the hormone prostaglandin’s indiscriminate approach to muscle contraction). “Back at the picnic table, I burst into tears telling my friends how sick I was,” she recalls. “They softened. I asked them if they got this sick on their periods. Not really, they said.” Four years later, her friends still remember the trip: “Something was really wrong,” one says. “I felt bad for you. You were really sick.”

The Red Zone is Caldwell’s attempt to grapple with her disruptive menstrual symptoms and find community through them. From debilitating cramps to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Caldwell’s existence is governed—often tyrannically—by her cycle. Early in the book, she learns she is nowhere near alone. In a series of interviews with loved ones and strangers, she creates a compendium of menstrual experiences. Her interview subjects often say “I wish I’d known” and “If only someone had told me.” “My periods had such pain I didn’t tell anyone about,” her own mother tells her. “I would cry in bed holding my stomach, trying not to let anyone know, even your dad. I thought it was normal ’cause no one talked about it.”

So Caldwell talks about it—all of it. The clotting, the shitting, the crying on the bathroom floor and meltdowns in public places. Asking friends, as a teen, to “check my butt” for blood stains. Taking photos of her blood in the toilet, diffused across the water in the shape of a lotus flower. The night her cramps were so bad that she, delirious, gave each one a name as it passed through her. The prayers to a period god that she “wasn’t sure existed to make it stop, to please make it stop.” The darkness, the dread, the helplessness.

As she reflects on her past, Caldwell also investigates her still-changing body. Her thirties brought with them more painful periods, as well as the onset of PMDD, the more severe form of PMS. As many as eight percent of those who menstruate experience PMDD, yet its symptoms—bouts of extreme irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week leading up to your period—are often characterized as run-of-the-mill mood swings that accompany PMS. After years of struggling to articulate the difference between the two conditions, she finally finds an explanatory image, “a photograph with a split screen: one side reads PMS with a photo of a woman pulling her hair out, and the other side reads PMDD with a woman on the edge of a rooftop.” Online, she discovers a vast community of women with PMDD, who live like she does, in perpetual fear of what they call their “werewolf week.”

She eventually attends a conference centered around PMDD and its treatment. Recommendations from conferencegoers include: yoga, acupuncture, a tryptophan-heavy diet, calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, chasteberry supplements, aromatherapy lamps, light diffusers, weighted blankets, jumping jacks, and Prozac. She is conflicted about going on medication, having been “conditioned to think antidepressants were for weaker people.” She had felt “superior” for not having to take them and suspects even her mother “doesn’t want to have a daughter on Prozac.” But after many conversations—with her doctor, with writer and friend Sheila Heti—she starts taking Prozac and finds it an indispensable addition to the arsenal in her battle against PMDD. “I decided to think of it as a really good vitamin,” she writes.

When I finally sought medication to treat my periods, I felt like I’d failed, like I couldn’t handle one of the most basic aspects of womanhood. (Of menstrual pain, Caldwell’s mother-in-law recalls she simply “sucked it up and carried on.”) At the same time, I could see no way to live a full life while menstruating like I did, incapacitated seven days a month. When my doctor agreed that medication was the best shot at treating my symptoms, I was stunned. “Women are infamously ignored, degraded, and condescended to in doctors offices,” Caldwell writes, “so even when someone believes you, it is hard to believe they believe you.” How many others were experiencing the kind of pain I was but weren’t seeking help for fear they would be exposed as failures or be disbelieved entirely?

On the whole, The Red Zone is an uneven work that never quite lives up to its potential. Caldwell’s prose is unremarkable and often prosaic. Her inquiry into women’s menstrual lives fails to culminate in a meaningful way, as she compiles primary texts (interviews, online forums, advertisements, etc.) without performing any analysis. The book’s subtitular love story, between the author and a mystifyingly tolerant man named Tony, never feels fully integrated into the story. That said, the project of the book—to make literary the body horror and psychological turmoil that are part of so many women’s lives—is an exciting one that, in the hands of a more inquisitive writer, could be culture-shifting.

By the end of The Red Zone, Caldwell finds that Prozac combined with diet, exercise, supplements, and therapy largely “shrunk and healed” the symptoms of her PMDD. But she remains vigilant, constantly monitoring her cycle. Caldwell calls her period “the punctuation of my life” (pun intended?), an apt metaphor for a biological force that imposes temporal structure on our otherwise amorphous existence. It’s an idyllic thought— promulgated by tampon commercials and authors behind self-help books with titles like In the Flo, Period Power, and Beyond the Pill—that women can live in harmony with their periods, but Caldwell recognizes that many women struggle to simply to live with their periods, period.

The medication I went on to manage my menstrual pain had an unexpected side effect: It eliminated my period, and therefore my pain, altogether. I remember some of my friends saying getting rid of my period was unnatural, an affront to physiology; recall Caldwell’s mother bristled at the use of Prozac to manage moods that she saw as the natural product of hormones. “Over time,” Caldwell writes, “you realize you cannot control most of your life, so you do the things you can control.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s hospitable to life, and the natural functions—and dysfunctions—of our bodies are largely out of our control. 

The Red Zone tells a story about looking for and finally claiming some control, meager as it may be, over a part of women’s lives that has been historically obscured, devalued, and stigmatized. It’s is an entry in a contemporary canon of menstrual literature that I hope, in the future, will be shaped by more depth, style, and rigor. I am grateful for Caldwell’s book nonetheless.

Don Winslow’s ‘City on Fire’: Good, Old-Fashioned American Pulp


Don Winslow’s latest novel, City on Fire, set in the author’s native Rhode Island, is the first in a trilogy about a mob war between Irish and Italian crime families in 1980s Providence. It is not, to be frank, top-shelf Winslow. The plot is leisurely in ways his novels rarely are, and I felt the dearth of fully realized female characters more keenly than I had in his earlier books.

But to put it this way is unfair to City on Fire. Winslow has set the bar so high with books like Savages, his paean to homicidal SoCal stoner cool, and with his masterwork, the Cartel Trilogy— The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border—about Mexico’s bloody narco wars, that what for most writers would be a career-capping achievement is, for Winslow, just ho-hum, another solid crime tale fresh in from the Winslow assembly plant.

Still, City on Fire isn’t a bad place to start building your Winslow collection. Before he wrote novels, Winslow was a private investigator, and he brings to all his books a deep understanding of criminal organizations, both at a human level and as business enterprises.

This is especially true in City on Fire, which opens as two local crime families, the Murphys and the Morettis, gather for a big clam bake held every year to cement the peace between the families and keep the junior mobsters from killing each other. As the scene unfolds, we learn how the Providence mob works, the Irish Murphys running the longshoreman’s unions and the Italian Morettis the Teamsters. “How they had fought each other, these two immigrant tribes, for a place to put their feet,” Winslow writes. “The Irish in Dogtown, the Italians on Federal Hill, toeholds carved out of grudging New England granite.”

In the years since, the mob leaders have forged an uneasy peace, which is broken after the clam bake when a brash Murphy lieutenant makes a play for the girlfriend of one of the Moretti mobsters. She claims he assaulted her, and the Moretti men, in full chest-thumping fury, beat the offending Irishman nearly to death with baseball bats, setting in motion the mob war at the center of the book.

The press materials for City of Fire attempt to coat all this with a frosting of Greek mythology, likening the novel’s hero, a young Irish dockworker named Danny Ryan, to Aeneas, and Pam, the girlfriend whose accusation sets off the mob war, to a modern-day Helen of Troy. Maybe. The novel’s more obvious antecedents would seem to be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the mobster films of Martin Scorsese. City on Fire is good, old-fashioned American pulp fiction—intelligent, well-written pulp, even—but pulp nonetheless.

In the 1980s, when the novel is set, the port of Providence is slowly dying, and the local mob outfits, always in the shadow of the big-city Mafia outfits, risk being swallowed up by New York’s Five Families. This leaves local mobsters to make Lincoln-esque tactical calculations aimed at maximizing their fighting strength without sacrificing their criminal enterprises or the goodwill of local politicians and police, who look the other way so long as they stay away from drug dealing and don’t leave too many dead bodies on the streets.

For Danny Ryan, who gradually gains control of the badly outgunned Irish mob as other family members are killed off or prove unworthy, the calculus is brutal. His Italian rivals can call on hired assassins from the
New York Mafia families and own the city’s mayor and a sizeable portion of the local police force, while he’s stuck with a handful of local men and a lone Northern Irish separatist, who quickly gets himself shot.

The financial mismatch is even more lopsided: “the Irish have the longshoreman’s union, the docks, and some small gambling and loan-sharking; the Morettis have the Teamsters, the construction unions, the vending machines, cigarettes and alcohol, major gambling, major money on the street, strip clubs and prostitution.”

“That’s the problem with a war,” Danny reflects, “you have the challenge of trying to stay alive and at the same time make a living. Hard, when you’re being hunted, to go out and make your collections, or make a score, or even get back and forth from work.”

Of course, this being a gangster novel, Danny makes up for what he lacks in men and materiel with brains and pluck, and he survives, battered but unbowed, to take what surely will be a starring role in the next two installments of the trilogy.

And of course, Danny being a man, he gets to use his brains and pluck. For the most part, the women in City on Fire are relegated to the role of worried wife, or, in the case of Pam, the novel’s would-be Helen of Troy, the face that launches a thousand mob hits.

The lone exception is Danny’s estranged mother, Madeline (an Aphrodite stand-in, according to City on Fire’s press materials scorecard), who has traded on her beauty to escape her trailer-park beginnings and become first a Vegas showgirl and then one half of a marriage of convenience to a spectacularly rich, and spectacularly ugly, manufacturer of women’s undergarments.

This is a common figure in Winslow novels, the calculating woman who uses her beauty to buy power and influence over men. But here, perhaps because Madeline’s Vegas milieu isn’t drawn with Winslow’s usual exacting verisimilitude or else because Madeline doesn’t have a lot to do in the novel other than be fiercely maternal toward Danny and his family, her character feels flat and not a little contrived.

This strikes me as a problem male crime writers need to solve. Crime is, almost by definition, a male-dominated world, but Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Tana French, who writes the Dublin Murder Squad novels, have found ways to make women central to their plots without resorting to clichés. And because women read many more novels than men do, their books have been runaway bestsellers.

One senses Winslow puzzling out how to pull off this same trick, but even in his best novels, a woman’s principal power resides in her beauty —that is, in how men see her and how she’s able to use that to get what she wants. That was never really how the world worked, but in books written and talked about exclusively by men, it could plausibly seem that way. But those days are gone and men with protean storytelling talents like Don Winslow need to adapt to the times.

The Maybe-Messiah and His Grandmother’s Ghost: On Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’


At last, it has arrived. Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s dark star epic, The Books of Jacob, has been released in English with Jennifer Croft’s stunning translation. For Ms. Tokarczuk’s English-speaking readers, The Books of Jacob has long hovered on the horizon, promising the full realization of the powerful and idiosyncratic vision we’ve encountered in books such as Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. That her Nobel nomination was rumored to be greatly based on the accomplishments of this book has only magnified the anticipation. And now, it is here.

The Books of Jacob is a singular, anomalous work, a massive novel overwhelmingly researched and intricately plotted. Rife with paradoxes, the book is a fictional rendering of factual events centered around a controversial and fascinating figure named Jacob Frank who instigated a largely forgotten religious movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Though it is an unabashed epic in scope—a book that luxuriates in detail—it is not a slog. In fact, it moves briskly, its tone often leaning toward satire but never sacrificing its humanity, tragic sensibilities, or deep sense of mystery.

The novel portrays the life of Jacob Frank, as seen through the eyes of those surrounding him, opening first with the story of one Father Chmielowski, a Catholic priest who “knows the world only through books” and has written an encyclopedic volume titled New Athens, “a compendium of knowledge of the sort that could be found in every home.” Father Chmielowski breaks from custom to borrow books from a prominent Jewish businessman named Elisha Shorr, and their interaction hints at an alternate reality that could have unfolded between their Catholic and Jewish communities. And, in another turn of imagined reality, Tokarczuk portrays the fictionalized meeting—and subsequent friendship—of real-world poet Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. These quiet and mutually edifying interactions—first between a Catholic man and a Jewish man and then between a man and a woman—serve as an ironically peaceful false start. For, after this, things turn strange.

At the Shorr’s house, Frank’s ailing grandmother Yente has swallowed an amulet intended to keep her from dying during an upcoming wedding and “is surprised to discover that she can easily slide out of her body and be suspended over it; she looks right at her own face, fallen and pale, a strange feeling, but soon she floats away, gliding along on the drafts of air, on the vibrations of sound, passing without difficulty through wooden walls and doors.” She floats through the story while the family is now burdened with a body that refuses to die. Yente provides bird’s-eye witness to public and private acts alike, her presence interpolated at pivotal moments with gentle reminders: “Yente, who sees all,” “Yente, who is never far.”

Providing a counterpoint to Yente’s detached witness is Nahman, a rabbi and Jacob Frank’s troubled biographer whose writings intersperse the main narrative with gospel-like first-hand accounts. Nahman, who was raised in a milieu peopled by “Kabbalists with clouded eyes,” shadows his enigmatic acquaintance in Smyrna, where he witnesses his beginnings as an indomitable and confident religious rebel. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he renames himself Frank, which “means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this.” In fact, Tokarczuk tells us, “in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent.”

Jacob Frank “always has the garland of an audience around him,” and yet “you can’t tell if he’s actually joking in what he says or being serious. He looks you straight in the eye, says a sentence like he’s firing a shot, and then waits for a reaction.” Nahman muses that “prophets must come from elsewhere, must suddenly appear, seem strange, out of the ordinary. Be shrouded in mystery…” This otherworldly man, it begins to occur to those around him, may be the long-awaited Messiah. His brazen assuredness is mesmerizing, if perplexing, and he comes to be called “the Lord” by his increasing throng of followers.

Mainline and esoteric Abrahamic theologies alike are utterly malleable in Jacob’s hands and conflations abound. “In this religion of the end of days,” we are told, “all three religions will be braided into one.” In this way, Frank recalls Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century messiah claimant who notoriously converted to Islam to escape death. Jacob Frank is Jewish but, after arriving in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he continues to dress in a fashion associated with Islam. Eventually, he persuades his Jewish followers to be baptized into the Catholic faith, to the shock of all. And, upon being baptized, Frank’s faithful are assigned new “Christian” names, which results in confusion for Frankists and readers alike.

With each theological development, the central question deepens: does he intend to truly reunite the three Abrahamic faiths, or does he simply use conversion as a means to better navigate the local social structures? It is not so easy to say: again and again, he is regularly overcome with ecstatic visions and seems to possess inexplicable power. His followers know that they defy him at their peril, and the surrounding Jewish and Catholic communities struggle to understand what is happening. And, all the while, ethereal Yente looks on.

As the novel progresses, Frank takes on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh-esque dimensions. In his system, “divinity and sinfulness are everlastingly connected.” Religious rite and convention are abandoned, and rumors of sexually-charged secret rituals are confirmed in a bizarre ceremony wherein Frank’s cousin Hayah, who also seems in possession of unexplained power, is presented half naked to a group of men—including several family members. Supposedly, “the Torah itself has entered… Hayah; that is what beams out now through her skin.” Throughout the book, Frank attempts to elevate femininity conceptually to actually subjugate the women around him. Thus, women remain at his beck and call—to the point that, when he falls ill, he demands to be nursed with breast milk.

“The Lord” revises theological and social norms to maintain purchase upon his followers. The inherent slipperiness of his mystical outlook provides a convenient framework to contain the cognitive dissonance required to follow his leadership. He presents himself as both cunning and aloof. Even when tried for heresy by the Catholic church, Frank neither refutes nor acknowledges claims that he believes himself to be the Messiah.

As the book continues, Frank’s obstacles become numerous, yet he always manages to emerge victorious. He escapes betrayal, a life sentence to prison, war, massive debts, and the trouble brought on by his ever-precarious position. Through it all, “Jacob’s spirits were not dampened… On the contrary: this chaos was giving him strength.”

However, not all of the chaos remains in his control: the book portrays the evolution of the previously insular setting as it becomes increasingly exposed to what lies beyond its borders: Descartes, Paraguay, Africa, Alaska, Canada, hurricanes, Kant, Mozart. Foreshadowing the Holocaust, a Catholic priest, annoyed with the Jewish community, longs to do “something decisive, irreversible.” And toward the novel’s close come reckonings with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic wars. The world that produced “the Lord” is changing, and the relative (though imperfect) calm he has exploited is disappearing.

With The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk has performed an incredible reversal: while the real-life Frank fabricated to conceal, Tokarczuk has invented to reveal. Through the use of fiction, Tokarczuk fleshes out what has been lost to history through a portrayal replete with beautiful period illustrations, the ghostly presence of a forgotten woman who cannot quite die, and a cacophonous ecosystem of characters. Especially moving are the closing portrayals of the characters that have been most used by Frank: Eva, his daughter and heir-apparent; Hayah, his cousin; and Nahman, his devoted apostle. To name just a few.

The Books of Jacob is a sui generis work that presents a beautifully nuanced take upon belief. Lesser writers incorporating this almost unbelievable set of real-life events into fiction would have likely veered into easy mockery and dismissal. As Frank’s health deteriorates and his tenure as the “maybe-Messiah” comes to a close, Tokarczuk’s narrative gracefully considers the legacy of the Frankists. Jacob was an extraordinary swindler, but was there any part of his life that deserves our pity? His followers may have been naïve and beguiled, but was it so wrong to hope for more than the world had so far offered them? In the end, The Books of Jacob provides narrative closure but few answers. Like Yente, we are left hovering in consideration over this beautiful and dizzying book that will almost certainly become a defining work of its generation.

Lucy Corin Picks Up Where Virginia Woolf Left Off


In the opening story of Lucy Corin’s 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s, 2013), a soldier returning from a war in which he tore “open a man’s belly with his sword” meets a witch who lowers him down a hollow tree, where he meets a blue dog with snowglobe eyes (the Eiffel Tower in one, a Golden Pyramid in the other) protecting a chest of promissory notes. In “Madmen,” the day the narrator gets her first period, her father gives her a gift: “a harness for my madman, the best kind, made of real leather with quality hand-stitching and brass appointments.” (She also gets a madman to strap the harness onto.) Near the end of “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster,” images of a burning California play on TV screens in the background. A few weeks later, the whole state is “a heaving, flattened, blowing, billowing mass of ash and soot and toxicity.”

These opening stories are firmly anchored in humans desiring things—safety, money, love, forgiveness, acceptance, pleasure—but projected against absurd tableaux, whereas the final sections of the book feel deliberately unmoored. The world ends, over and over again, in flashes. The entirety of “July Fourth” reads:
Got there and the ground was covered with bodies. Lay down with everyone and looked at the sky, bracing for the explosions.
In “Bluff,” a woman wearing “the Only Jeans That Truly FitTM” watches from a mesa as the apocalypse arrives, “filling the desert with roiling black soot so fast it seemed always to have been there, gnarled, burled, paisley, churning, eddying, smoking…” In “Apocalypses Past,” it’s “uncool” to talk about pre-apocalypse predictions of the apocalypse. Cannibalism and wanton sex, however, are very cool.

Wry, cutting, magical, and intentionally distant, Apocalypses was a McSweeney’s book at the peak of McSweeney’s hipness. Corin’s first novel, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (FC2, 2004), told from the perspective of a chorus of beautiful young victims, is similarly procacious. Like the conclusion of Apocalypses, Psychokillers employs a repetition that creates first horror, then numbness, then more horror that ultimately, as Patricia Eakins has it, “cracks the glossy landscape” and fixes in the reader a permanent disgust. The book is a sort of structural kin to the “The Part About the Crimes” section of Bolaño’s 2666—full of uncountable dead women—but instead of clinical pestilence, it bursts with aching (and maybe leering?) beauty.
She took her time arranging her gym shirt on her lap before swooping her arms into it and then over her head with the gesture of a super-stylized yawn, performed by a dancer. She was a weighted shape in the room, like a pin balanced still and upright in a frothing teacup.
Is that Corin’s gaze or ours? It might be both. Pschokillers is a critique of the commodification of murdered girls that is also, winkingly, a commodity constructed with the bodies of those murdered girls.

To call these books—and her debut collection, The Entire Predicament (Tin House, 2007)—“self-aware” isn’t to diminish them. In fact, it’s probably fair to characterize Corin’s early career project as a set of conceptual traps she dared her readers to think and feel their way out of. The best of those stories get their teeth into our ankles and don’t let go. Good luck escaping the final lines of “Miracles”:
After the apocalypse, a brother of mine said, “Do you remember if you were nervous with all those poison spiders radiating from the jar? Do you remember that we didn’t have any insect spray because we’d just moved out there but he had a can of hairspray and that’s what he sprayed on them, just as they were getting away? Why did we have hairspray? Was it hers?”
But if Corin’s early books are high-concept experiments (or collections of high-concept experiments) that transcend their concepts, her latest, The Swank Hotel (Graywolf, 2021) is—in scope, formal ambition, and linguistic sorcery—something else entirely.

It’s fairly easy to describe the novel. Em, with the inconsistent help of family and friends, attempts to find, revive, and rehabilitate her mentally ill sister, Ad. The action of the plot can be as absurd as Pynchon. Like The Crying of Lot 49, Swank begins as a sort of detective story, with Em tromping through ruined urban landscapes in search of her sister, who may or may not be alive, and a man named Jack in a long white coat, who may or may not exist. But the strangeness doesn’t ever actually veer into naked satire. It’s simply that by zooming into the materials and social relations of the late capitalist culture of the pseudo-optimistic Obama years (the financial meltdown and the assassination of Osama bin Laden are the novel’s foul poles), Corin proves that even a toaster—its production, its packaging—is a singular and inscrutable phenomenon, to say nothing of a paycheck and the bank that might cash it. Yet the narrative never feels arch or ironic. The episodes of the book are weird because the world is weird. And the world is even weirder when the person you love most on earth might be dead but you still have to go to work.
He said he might take The Solution to market. [Em] said something about the difference between your actual technology and the technology that technology keeps crowing about, and when she said “crowing about” she thought, who talks like that? He kept talking about his plans for making it big and she just took a deep breath and vacated the premises. She snuck down the hall and outside. Her sister was missing.

Outside was dark, practically no cars in the parking lot, just seven streetlights. As if there were no other bathrooms in the universe, she shoved herself between the building and a perfunctory hedge. One kind of humidity came from the bushes and another came from the wall.

She squatted and peed.
As we’ve become increasingly conscious of the utility of writing—why these characters, why this story, why now?—I think many of us, as we read, have trained ourselves to keep our radars scanning constantly for solipsism. In the face of climate change, nuclear war, and racism, why spend years writing a novel (or, for that matter, weeks reviewing one) about the private problems of the middle class? The majority of the characters in Swank, it should be said, are white, own property, and—with the glaring exceptions of Ad and Jack—are more or less physio- and neurotypical enough to sell their labor on the market for a wage. Even if a book like Swank reminds you just how rare it is to encounter invented characters who feel as psychologically distinct and capacious as your own family members, in 2022—fairly or not—a novel must often assert its right to be read. Is it topical enough, urgent enough, to deserve our attention? If it takes a decade to produce a book and that book is literally made of carbon-drinking trees, is it, to paraphrase Richard Powers, better than the trees cut down to print it? Is it a net gain?

It’s probably important to note, here, that I’m not posing these questions rhetorically in order to skewer the premise of asking them. (I often struggle not just with “why these characters, why this story, why now?” but sometimes even “why writing?”) I’m also aware that thinking in terms of efficiency and efficacy is just me applying capitalist productivity metrics to art. Maybe it’s not some writer’s inability to answer these questions satisfactorily that’s the problem; maybe the problem is the questions themselves. But here we are. The planet is heating and Putin has invaded Ukraine and abortion is about to be illegal and B.I.P.O.C. voters in America are being deliberately re-disenfranchised. So, why The Swank Hotel?

The simple answer is that it’s monumental. Not in an Anthony Doerr way, spanning continents and millennia. It’s monumental in the way of fractals: inward looking, but infinite. And in addition to being a scathing, often hilarious critique of consumerism, Swank might also be the most precise and illuminating novel about psychosis and (attempted) suicide since Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t say that just because the story has a Septimus and uses free indirect discourse to jump perspectives. I say that because Corin toggles amongst psyches with Woolfian delicacy, complexity, and dexterity. When you leave one character for another, Corin doesn’t broadcast her clues. You won’t find As I Lay Dying chapter headings (e.g. “Em;” “Mom;” “Jack”). Rather, you recognize that you’ve slid into a new brain because the world suddenly looks and sounds different.
“… I’d make bodysuits for objects. Those intricate plastic tray things where the gadget sits in a shadow depression and its cord has a little coffin with a twist tie and the whole tray thing slides perfectly into a square shell. I’d work in cardboard because I’m against styrofoam, like any decent person. Cardboard may still have a soul. Have you ever seen that guy downtown in the box? I like that little tab you have to slip out of the toaster oven door, have you ever bought a toaster oven? I like how you take something out of the box and you can never even imagine how it would go back. I’ve moved a lot, so I’ve kind of been in train- ing. If I think about it, I was probably made for a life of packaging. Both my parents have characteristics. You know what’s the most important art of our time? I’m sure you stay up at night over that. It’s those drawings of how children can kill themselves with everything you bought. Plastic bags, window blinds . . . I know, I am really backing myself into a corner, I may as well be waving a kitchen knife around like a microphone.”
That’s Em: obsessed, delighted, horrified, embarrassed, one thought crashing into the next, simultaneously in control of her own mind and not.
At dusk I stood in front of the Pantheon and let it put me in my place. Comfort me with its thickness, its guiseless, skinless surface. I traced the line between the conceivable and inconceivable, setting the curve of the Pantheon in relation to the curve of the universe. Anyway, the moon was full, white hole in the sky. Isn’t that enough? A bum was already asleep among the colossal columns of the portico. I was not going to sleep. I was going to keep walking the city until I had to walk right onto a train that would take me to a boat and leave.
That’s Em’s mother: falsely humble, composed, grandiose, independent, vigilant, critical. It’s not just that Em would never say “bum.” It’s that Em wouldn’t find solace in the history and architecture of Rome. She’d be appalled—or at the very least confused.

And then there’s Ad, whose “madness” is the nucleus of the book. Everyone and everything revolves around its invisible but irresistible force, including Ad herself. The novel teaches us, as all great books do, how to read it. You start out thinking you’re in a close-third story told from Em’s perspective. But then, in the next long chapter, you’ve wormed into the brain of her boss, Frank. Later, you’ve possessed Tasio, a young man from Chiapas who’s helping Em’s parents finish building their unfinishable house. And as the perspectives accumulate, it becomes clear that, at some point, Corin will have to make her way into Ad’s volatile, slippery mind. But when she gets there, the author suddenly disappears. And Emily Hochman, Corin’s actual sister on whom Ad is based, takes over—literally.

“One of the symptoms of mania is grandiosity,” Hochman writes in an essay titled “Urine Drinker.” “I always think I’m a genius.”
[W]hen I was in the hospital in the same psychosis, I was talking to dead David Foster Wallace, who was telling me how wonderful my writing was. I said yes it’s much better than my sister’s, she’s crap (I was pissed), and he said, “No no no, she’s quite good. Not as good as you, but she’s good.” I think the hardest thing about becoming sane and the squelching of the delusions might be the eradication of my belief in my own greatness. Imagine you are convinced you are a revolutionary, a prophet, a Van Gogh, a priestess, and then the meds kick in and what you really are is a nobody, and even worse than that, a psycho. It’s even harder than saying goodbye to the spirits, maybe even harder than the humiliation.
Relinquishing her authorship to Hochman, here, isn’t a cop-out. Corin proves in every other section of Swank that she could’ve written her own stunning version of Ad’s mind. But she chooses not to. Nor is handing the book over to her sister a post-modern gimmick. Rather, it’s a way for Corin to seek her sister’s permission, her forgiveness. The following passage—about Hochman’s discovery of an early version of the Swank manuscript—if Corin had written it, might’ve been a kind of disingenuous, artificial absolution.
What I saw was my life. It was my suicide and my coming back to life and my psychosis and my hospitalizations. In case the question comes up about how she has such intimate knowledge of mental illness, that’s how. And I felt like this is my story, it’s my book to write. But it’s her story too. The loved ones of people with serious mental illness go through their own torment and learning curves, and artists process their emotions and refine their thoughts with their art. A lot of fiction writers depend on events and characters from their own lives and I know exactly how that is. I rely on photographs and other source material for my painting. Almost always, except when I am in another dimension. So I can’t fault her.
Coming from Hochman, the passage is a bone in the throat and also a blessing. This isn’t your story. But it isn’t mine, either. Anything less than an actual collaboration would be an insult to both of us.

If Corin is, as Karen Russell has called her, “a writer light-years ahead of her time,” (and I couldn’t agree more) Swank is the glow of a star beaming back at us from a galaxy where descriptors like “sane” and “productive” are no longer labels we voluntarily apply to ourselves. To be “normal”—a normal worker, a normal consumer, a normal daughter—carries enormous social and environmental costs. To struggle on in the same yoke, in the same muddy track, is the only thing you can fairly call insane.

In 100 Apocalypses, a character named Arbuckle is warming to Marxism. His friend Patrick says, “So you want to kill millions of people and make everyone poor?” “Marxism is a critique of capitalism,” says Arbuckle. “[Y]ou don’t have to have all the answers to think there’s a problem, you just have to think there might be a better way.” Nearly a decade later, Corin continues believing there might be a better way. And as a final gift in Swank, we find Em and Ad glimpsing some hard-won, other way of being.
When [Em] did, as if finally, encounter a crowd in the street with emotions that covered her own and slipped into it, for a while she felt encompassed by people as colors, shapes, and sizes of videos and bodies and backpacks and giant-sized words written by hand. She moved along with them without knowing if she was present other than being a body, or if being a body was actually fine. She let some physics do some work, and as the light shifted because of interruptions by the built and breathing environment, her body found a rhythm in exertion.

Then she was on a cusp with them, with people ready to go off. People were the toxic detritus of their own horrid history and also clear weather droplets on the tips of the grasses of meadows in advance of fires. Em vibrated on the verge of dissipation in the moment between culminating and having happened, because there was Adeline in the crowd, glinting among everyone.
Get yourself, and everyone you love, well enough to act on something greater than a private emergency. An enormous, all-consuming, collective task awaits us all. Please, please, if you can summon the strength, be ready.

The Lost Art of Not Knowing Something

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“I just want to ask you a few questions.” —Socrates in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds (423 BCE)

Tell me if you’ve heard this—a head-in-scroll type always quoting Livy or Plutarch goes to the house of a terminally sick friend. His distraught wife euphemistically tells the scholar her husband has recently “departed.” The intellectual responds “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?” Not doing it? How about this—”A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself.” More grim than gay? Let’s try another—”A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia.” That line is kind of funny, if upsetting. All of these jokes are over 1,600 years old, from the earliest surviving joke book Philogelos, written by Hierocles and translated from the Greek by William Berg. When considering ancient humor, historian Mary Beard worries that we’re as “anxious guests at a foreign party,” as she writes in Laugher in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, “joining in with the hearty chuckling when it seems the polite thing to do but never quite sure that [we’ve] really got the joke.” There is, however, an ancient Greek joke, of a sort, that I do find funny, though more for the fact that for two-and-a-half millennia it’s been taken so seriously. To whit—a goggle-eyed, snub-nosed, balding, short little gremlin of a man was rumored to be the wisest in Athens, which was confirmed by the Delphic Oracle. The man—known to wander the Agora berating people with annoying questions—couldn’t believe it. So, he set out to find anybody wiser than him, asking people the definitions of truth, happiness, love. Soon, however, he comes to a conclusion—they don’t know anything. As Plato writes in The Apology, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great or good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.” Slight advantage Socrates. Cue the music from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This isn’t exactly the Socrates in Ward Farnsworth’s learned, erudite, and elegant The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook, but it’s not not exactly that Socrates either. Author of Farnsworth’s Classical Rhetoric, Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, and The Practicing Stoic —all released from Boston-based independent publisher Godine in distinctive bestiary covers—this latest offering is a prologue to that last title. Just as Farnsworth explained how the ancient Stoics are invaluable, in The Socratic Method he demonstrates how the dialogues that the ancient philosopher engaged in can “help toward intelligence and [as] an antidote to stupidity,” seeing in the relentless, honest, and surprisingly humble mode a cudgel against “foolishness, cowardice, partisanship, hypocrisy, rage, vanity, and other demons.” For those whose palms get sweaty at the phrase “Socratic Method,” it perhaps brings back memories of stern law school professors in tweed responding to every answered question with yet another question, or of attending physicians berating their under-slept residents as they make hospital rounds. This is the Socratic Method practiced by Professor Charles Kingsfield of Harvard Law School who in the 1973 James Bridges’s film The Paper Chase holds up a dime and tells one unlucky student “Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.” Farnsworth—the Dean of the University of Texas Law School—is far too delightful to imagine ever doing anything like that; instead of seeing the Socratic Method as a tool for berating, he sees it as a corrective defined by “an ethic of patience, inquiry, humility, and doubt,” a predisposition based in a “confidence that truth exists, but humility about whether he knows it.”

Socrates, like Christ, is more appreciated than emulated. As with the Nazarene, we’ve got no first-person accounts of Socrates; if the former was a creation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and Paul), then the latter was born from Xenophon, Aristophanes, and more than anyone his ostensible student Plato. Unlike Christ, we’ve got a decent idea of what Socrates looked like, though since ancient Greek sculptors were known to idealize the human form it raises the question of how much worse the philosopher actually was, since he’s normally depicted as a “short, stocky…. bald man,” as George Costanza described himself. A Roman carnelian gem from the first-century before the Common Era depicts Socrates as bald, bearded, and boobed, reminiscent of the grinning comedic masks of the Athenian theater. The connection between Socrates and humor should be clear, not least of all because he was an annoying gadfly who conscripted his interlocutors into philosophical dialogue, with the intent to demonstrate inconsistencies, poor definitions, and an exulted sense of their knowledge. I’d posit that there is a bit of Larry David in the philosopher. They both puncture hypocrisy, force us to question our own moral platitudes, and deign that we must defend our presuppositions, even if doing so seems rude. After all, as Plato wrote in Laches, “Anyone who is close to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument,” complaining that the philosopher “will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.” Pretty, pretty, pretty good. Pretty good.  

“In its caustic moments the Socratic function does some of the work of the fool or court jester,” Farnsworth writes, his task is to be “offensive when the ego overstates itself. It pokes at self-importance and hubris when they need mockery.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says, “If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments,” while Plutarch admiringly writes in On Old Men in Public Life that Socrates “played the philosopher while joking with you,” as he was the “first to show that life affords scope for philosophy at every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.” If the secret to humor is timing, than Socrates landed an epic delayed joke, because though he claimed to be devoid of wisdom, some 2,400 years after he was executed by the Athenian state for the supposed corruption of the youth (and his involvement in educating several of the anti-democratic leaders among the deposed Thirty Tyrants) and Alfred North Whitehead would claim in Process and Reality that the entire “European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to [him]” (well, Plato, but it’s the same thing). How’s that for a punchline, the self-declared nudnik who created the entire Western tradition?

Such is Socratic irony, for nobody who reads the dialogues can suppress the feeling that the philosopher doesn’t actually believe his stated ignorance, and yet his methodological skepticism has long been a philosophical loadstar. Bertrand Russell writes in A History of Western Philosophy that Socrates was a “pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages… indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be the truth than for anything else.” This is the figure depicted in Jacque-Louis David’s 1787 neo-classical masterpiece The Death of Socrates, the regal old man, arm pointing aloft as he makes another point to his distraught students while being handed a cup filled of hemlock, so honest that with his dying words he is recorded in Plato’s Phaedo as having said the he owed a rooster to a friend, so “Pay it and do not neglect it.” Some have always been a bit suspicious of this martyr to reason, this Christ of philosophy; in The Trial of Socrates, muckraking labor journalist I.F. Stone surveyed primary sources in the original Greek and concluded that his subject was a “loyal monarchist” who was executed for his anti-democratic activities, though that punishment was a “black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized.” Russell, meanwhile, simply called Socrates “smug and unctuous.”

Whatever his politics or personality, Socrates has remained synonymous with the idea of a philosophical life for nearly 24 centuries. Just as Christ’s advent divides history, whether we’re Christian or not, so too does Socrates cleave ancient philosophy in half. Before Socrates, philosophy was practiced by an assortment of mystics and weirdos like Pythagoras, or else it was the provenance of the rhetorically minded charlatans the Sophists, who in total disregard to the truth were interested only in teaching how to be convincing. Socrates shared much with them, particularly the merits of argumentation, but where the Sophists were only interested in winning, the former had truth in his scope (even if ever elusive). The master wrote nothing himself, and posterity records his teachings entirely through Plato, from whom it’s almost impossible to disentangle. Plato in turn taught the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle, but when the student was passed over to lead the Academy, he’d found his own group, the Lyceum. Between the two of them, Plato and Aristotle effectively separated the rest of Western philosophy amongst two camps. Enmity between an adviser and his student, the dialectic that moves scholarship forward, same as it ever was. Where Plato was otherworldly and abstract, Aristotle was pragmatic and concrete; the first was mathematical, the second was scientific; the older rational, the younger empirical; the former spiritual, and the latter physical. As with The Beatles and The Stones, you can like both, but not equally. Yet as a melody through the two, and through movements including the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Cynics, was the example of Socrates, who modeled a method rather than a doctrine. Plato is most identified with his Theory of Forms, the idea that perceived reality is a shadow of some transcendent realm. It’s hard to parse whether this idea is Socrates’s or Plato’s. What we do know is that Socrates unequivocally demonstrated the utility of his much-vaunted method.

Farnsworth explains that this method “proceeds by questions and answer,” with Socrates “always focused on the consistency of his partners” so that he can “identify the principle behind what his partners are saying.” After Socrates has gotten his interlocutor to define whatever it is that they’re talking about—courage, virtue, justice—the philosopher “shows that the principle doesn’t cover things that it should, or that it does cover things that it shouldn’t,” while using “concrete examples to drive his reasoning.” Throughout the process Socrates never claims expertise, seeing himself and whomever the unfortunate Athenian he has cornered—and is probably just trying to buy pistachios and olives in the Agora—as being involved in collaborative process. As a representative example, consider Socrates’s cross-examination of Laches in which he asks the latter what courage is, with his unlucky partner answering that it’s a “sort of mental persistence.” With a definition given, Socrates examines it both for internal consistency and to demonstrate to Laches that this definition is incomplete, for “I don’t think that you take every instance of persistence to be courage,” since you “count courage as something rather admirable,” and yet there are forms of persistence that are obviously unintelligent, and unintelligence isn’t admirable. “If anything is harmful and dangerous, is it admirable, would you say?” asks Socrates. “No, that wouldn’t be a defensible position,” Laches answers. They go on like this for awhile until both admit that neither of them knows what courage is. This process of dialectic—the posing and answers of questions to demonstrate contradictions and to reach ever greater degrees of specific granularity—is powered by elenchus, the rhetorical maneuver of asking somebody questions that they’d agree with so as to ultimately make them identify logical inconsistencies in their original presupposition (there is a reason that law schools teach in this manner). For a contemporary example, watch Peter Falk in any episode of Columbo.

While the radical Skeptics such as Pyrrho used this method to prove the unknowability of anything, Socrates was up to something different. His intent wasn’t to continue the dialogue to a point where both parties are just as ignorant as before, but rather to reach a state of aporia, a wondrous, enlightened ignorance, though also a state of relative knowledge. The philosopher saw his difficult role in this process as rather being like a midwife. “Socratic thought is a route to wisdom but not wisdom in a box; it denies that wisdom can be fit in a box,” writes Farnsworth. What does Farnsworth want his reader to do with the Socratic Method? He makes clear that he doesn’t intend this to be societally prescriptive, all of us sitting down with our MAGA coworkers and reasoning them out of QAnon conspiracy theories through elenchus. Rather the “rightful first subject of skepticism isn’t others. It’s ourselves,” for Farnsworth argues that the true utility of the method is to feed an inner Socrates who forces us to continually refine our own beliefs, presuppositions, commitments, ethics, and ideologies. If inconsistencies are discovered we can strengthen our previously untested beliefs by further refining them; if they withstand such scrutiny, we can be confident in why we believe what we do. Maybe Socrates is smug and unctuous, maybe he isn’t all that pleasant, but he’s still somebody we need the assistance of. “There has to be an opposition party within the self,” Farnsworth writes, because the “internalized Socrates amounts to an honorable adversary.”  

The Socratic Method is scant with current day examples, preferring to bring up Epictetus and John Stuart Mill rather than Bill Maher and Ben Shapiro, which is of course a good thing. Yet it’s obvious that Farnsworth has our current discourse in mind (not least of all because he explicitly says so), and in the Socratic Method he identifies a tincture to that which ails the body politic. “If I were pressed for a one-word opposite of the Socratic method, a strong candidate would be Twitter,” he writes. With a bit of the curmudgeon about him, Farnsworth claims that social media carries “a kind of poison” within, a noxious brew of “quick reactions, easy certainties, one-liners and rage” that “craves confirmation and resents contradiction.” The author is mute about his own partisan allegiances, but it’s personally telling that as I read that description it became important to me that Farnsworth wasn’t talking about my side. Hot cheeked and frowning, I anticipated some fulsome denunciation of “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” which never came. Ironically, when reading over my notes for this piece, I examined a line when Farnsworth describes the danger of unexamined cultural precepts, writing that “Wretchedness can occur because points of tension in the values of the society have not yet been brought to its collective awareness in a clear enough way” and I wondered if a conservative reading The Socratic Method would think that the author was overly “woke.” Then I realized that perhaps I’d subconsciously been projecting something, that Farnsworth had made his point about the dangers of not submitting yourself to the inner Socrates and rather letting Twitter think for you.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an account of how The Socratic Method made me go conservative, far from it (nor do I think that that’s what Farnworth intends). And while it’s easy to see Farnsworth critiquing the “discourse” as bothsiderism, I think what he’s arguing is far more subtle. People who receive their deepest political commitments from memes that originate at a .ru domain address or who scour Trumpian Twitter misspellings for secret codes dropped by JFK Jr. are in need of intercessions beyond that which can be supplied by the Phaedo, but I do think Farnsworth is correct about the algorithmic conformity machine for the saner among us. Author Meghan O’Gieblyn describes the Internet’s uncanniness in her excellent book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, writing that while online she senses “the speed with which ideas go viral, cascading across social platforms, such that the users who share them begin to seem less like agents than as hosts, nodes in the enormous brain,” where there is an “efficiency of consensus, the speed with which opinions fuse and solidify alongside the news cycle, like thought coalescing in the collective consciousness.” Who among us has not decided, even subconsciously, what their opinion would be based on a missive from some Blue Checkmark Oracle? Who hasn’t experienced the push and pull of sentiment as drawn from the whirlpool of the newsfeed, positions coalescing as if from outside their own mind? From that perspective the Socratic Method is absolutely an antidote to the creepy hive-mindedness of the worst of digitally powered unthinkingness. The issue isn’t what the opinions are; the issue is how you arrived at them.

Because there is an innate radicalism to aporia, an affirmation not of certainty, but of less uncertainty. This isn’t utopian because it’s individual; it’s not quixotic because you can start doing it now. “The Socratic method means, among other things, asking and receiving questions fearlessly,” Farnsworth writes, “it means saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; it means loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it.” Staying humble and being honest—those are Socrates’s most revolutionary sentiments, even if he often seemed a bit conceited. Over the last generation, activists and scholars have critiqued the Western tradition—if ever a Socratic activity—for being patriarchal, racist, colonialist, and so on. Which of course is true—it would be lying to deny those things. But the punchline at the core of that tradition is the Socratic aporia, the humble and gracious uncertainty that’s willing to interrogate away every excess, indignity, and contradiction until confronted with the unvarnished and perhaps ugly truth. Seeds for the undoing of everything that deserves to be undone within Western philosophy were first planted by Socrates. That’s the irony about reactionaries who claim to be defending the classics by denouncing “critical race theory,” or “cultural Marxism,” or deconstruction, or whatever, because they despise the subversions which those things are supposed to signify, but can you imagine anything more Socratic than subversion? Those who claim to be students in the School of Athens are most often those who screech about the corruptions of youth. Where’s that hemlock?    

A few months ago The Washington Post reported that Princeton historian Allen Guelzo argued that critical race theory was based in the pernicious work of the 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, seemingly based only on the first word in the title of his magnum opus The Critique of Pure Reason. Clearly this is stupid, and the Twitter hive-mind appropriately showered scorn on Guelzo’s claim. But in a more profound way, where Guelzo erred was in identifying Kant as the origin of such a perspective. It was Socrates who was responsible—and we owe him gratitude. “Only the search to the origins of one’s ideas in order to see the real arguments for them, before people became so certain of them that they ceased thinking about them at all, can liberate us,” wrote reactionary classicist Allan Bloom in Giants and Dwarves, and he was absolutely correct, though not for the reasons that he thought. Only by proper, rigorous, Socratic questioning can we hope to redeem ourselves, but the irony for a Bloom is that in that process the United States might not come up so well, capitalism might not seem so great, the bulk of the Western tradition might require some remodeling, all thanks to the time bomb hidden within that tradition itself. Contra Bloom’s staid traditionalism, but in keeping with Farnsworth’s pedagogical radicalism, Roosevelt Montás argues in his delightful and important Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changes My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation that when teaching the Platonic dialogues to low-income students in the Bronx, “Socrates whispers to them not to mistake… marks of privilege for true expressions of merit and to find in their own intellectual integrity a source of self-worth and self-respect that surpasses any material advantage their peers might have over them.” Because whatever role Socrates played in the politics of Athens, whatever he did or didn’t do that merited execution, both Montas and Farnsworth are correct that the dialectic is dangerous in the most powerful way.

Socrates was a schmuck. You see, I’m a schmuck, and I’m sure that you are as well. The common impediment of the human condition is that we’re all schmucks. We’re clowns that have slipped on the seltzer and landed in the whipped-cream pie, but some of us are looking up at the stars (or at least the mural of them on the vaudeville theater ceiling). That’s the thing with a schmuck—they’re conceited, narcissistic, egocentric, but they can also be humbled, and in such degradation is the road to something that kind of, sort of, might pass for wisdom. So often theories of humor are based in cruelty and mocking, but self-deprecating Socrates knew that the greatest target of comedic opprobrium was always the fool in his mirror. That’s the power of humility, because you can defeat your sparring partner by first defeating yourself. Something in that regard always seemed a bit Jewish about Socrates, the funny bits of him more Borscht Belt than Baklava. “Socratic philosophy starts with ‘I don’t know.’ It ends with ‘I don’t know,'” writes Farnsworth. What could be more Jewish than that? Especially since questions are the “sound of thought happening.” An anarchic jester and a wise fool, Socrates was most of all a tummler and his method was schtick. Between Athens and Jerusalem there is the prat-fall, the one-liner, the gag, the bit, the joke. Greek philosophy gave us the dialectic, and for that we should be grateful, but in the prophetic tradition of Judaism there still remains a far more redemptive mode of denouncing injustice and uncovering the lie, and that’s iconoclasm. Tell me if you’ve heard this one—the biblical patriarch Abraham’s father, Terah, was the fashioner of pagan idols. When asked to guard his father’s statues, Abraham (then known as Abram) took a stick and smashed them to bits, save for the largest one in whose hand he placed the instrument that had committed such vandalism. According to a midrash of Rabbi Hiyya, when Terah returned, the enraged father demanded of Abraham who had destroyed the idols. The son pointed to the most formidable of the idols, still holding that stick, and said “He did.” Now that’s funny.         

Birding While the World Burns: On Charles Hood’s ‘A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat’


A few years ago, I became unexpectedly obsessed with mushrooms. It started, as so many unlikely obsessions do, with research for a novel. I didn’t need to know much about the world of fungi to write the scenes I had in mind, but the more I read about mushrooms, the more I wanted to know. I began to see them everywhere: popping up from the mulch of street trees, crouched at the sides of buildings, and creeping across rotting park benches. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, where nature felt scarce and paved-over, but suddenly my eyes were drawn to vacant lots, construction sites, and the narrow strips of unclaimed land between buildings. Where I once might have focused on the unsightly pieces of trash and felt depressed about microplastics and chemicals in the soil, I was more inclined to lift a soggy piece of cardboard to see what was growing underneath it. Even though nothing had changed, New York City became more alive to me, and I became a little bit happier in my day-to-day life.

Looking for mushrooms in rotting park infrastructure is what Charles Hood would call, “the joys of ugly nature.” His debut essay collection, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat, is a book that celebrates the nature that we can access every day in our own backyards—and if we don’t have backyards, then in a parking lot, garbage dump, or whatever scarred, imperfect spots are nearby. Writing from his home in Palmdale, Calif., Hood has learned to embrace a landscape that he describes as “sections of creosote edgeland that collectively are not quite original desert, not quite exurban wasteland, but an in-between zone of once-grazed, sometimes-trash-filled, always fascinating possibility.” Hood acknowledges that for most people, this area looks like it “has been hit about ten times with the ugly stick and left for dead,” but his ongoing thesis, which he returns to throughout his essays, is that our vision has been clouded by fantasies of empty, pristine wilderness and nature writing that “too often drifts into High Church rhetoric.” Hood’s own writing is a tonic, full of specific, weird details. If find yourself consulting a dictionary as you read, it’s because Hood is a widely published poet, and brings a poet’s magpie vocabulary to his prose. The title of his collection comes from his assessment of his local plant list: bitterbrush, burro weed, creosote, jumping cholla and Mormon tea, i.e. “a salad only the devil would eat.”

Everything I’ve quoted from in the above paragraph comes from Hood’s opening essay, “I Heart Ugly Nature,” a witty meditation that sets the stage for the 13 essays that follow. Hood’s conversational, personal writing examines his obsessive-compulsive relationship with bird lists, his addiction to field guides, his mixed feelings about taxidermy and zoos, his awe of whales, and his love of pine trees, palm trees, and penguins. A handful of pieces are more journalistic in tone, delving into the history of Los Angeles’s water supply, Aububon’s Birds of America, and the red dye that is harvested from cochineal, a parasite that grows on the prickly pear cactus and “make the cactus pads look like they have been spackled with crusty toothpaste.” I learned a lot reading these essays, but in an offhand way. It’s a book that celebrates the delights of amateurism, the facts that you stumble upon when you’re reading for something else, or the rare bird you happen to notice when you’re out on a whale watch.

Embracing contradiction is an important part of Hood’s credo, and a theme he revisits often. In his essay, “Love and Sex in Natural History Dioramas,” he admits that he loves dioramas even as they obscure reality, observing that there are never any pieces of trash in a diorama, or airplane contrails in the painted sky; the only evidence of human influence is that fact that the animals are arranged with the male animal cast as protector, in order to present a narrative that is pleasing and familiar to visitors. “They [dioramas] are useful, attractive, artistic, but also colonial and limiting and laden with daddy issues.” Another contradiction Hood leans into is his love of list-making, a hobby that is both second nature and “darkly addictive.” He has to quit his bird list because it was taking the fun out of hiking: “Too often I came back from a trip unhappy over something stupid—like not seeing the suchity-such, which Joe Money-Wad had seen only a month earlier. Never mind all the other things I had seen.” Instead of birds, Hood now counts mammals, a hobby that takes him all over the world to collect sightings. Does he feel guilty over his carbon footprint? Oh, yes, but at the very same time he relishes his adventures, and feels pride for his mammal list, which is creeping up to 1,000.

There are writers who would dwell in their climate anxiety for a beat longer than Hood does, and I couldn’t decide if I minded that he didn’t. Mostly, I felt relieved. Over the past decade, I’ve read many books and articles that detail the current climate crisis, and while I think it’s important to know the extent of the damage, and to investigate strategies for repair and restoration, we also need writing that looks for the bits of joy amidst the profound losses. It’s crucial, of course, that Hood is honest about what has been destroyed. If he reaches for optimism, it’s only for his own sanity, not because he’s in denial. In “Fifty Dreams for Forty Monkeys,” an essay about the futility of wildlife management (among other things) Hood writes about the necessity of accepting nature as it exists in reality: “Because the thing is, I live when I live, and while I can yearn for the passenger pigeon or the truly stupendous and entirely extinct Carolina parakeet, that won’t help get me through the day. I have to love what the day allows me to love.”

Maybe the difference between Hood and journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, and David Wallace-Wells, whose recent books Under a White Sky, Falter, and The Uninhabitable Earth anticipate future catastrophes, is that Hood stays very much in the present, looking at what animals and plants are doing now to cope with the changes at hand. He’s not particularly interested in technological or political solutions that humans might employ to deal with the climate crisis and believes that “our best action on behalf of nature may be inaction: stand back and let it do its thing, see what happens.” Investigative journalist Cal Flyn makes similar insights in her recent book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, which looks at the way that nature has rebounded in toxic spaces abandoned by humans, such as the exclusion zone in Chernobyl, and Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Her reporting backs up many of Hood’s casual observations about the hidden virtues of “ugly nature” and the folly of human interventions. I don’t mean to suggest that either writer recommends that we continue to burn fossil fuels or destroy wildlife, only that both writers observe how nature can thrive when left unbothered.

I suspect that off the page, Hood is a lot more pessimistic, but in his writing, he’s trying to keep the darkness at bay. He also tries to keep the human perspective at bay, nudging us to remember that it’s just one point of view, among many. One of my favorite throwaway lines in this collection comes after Hood shares the pet names that zookeepers gave to four captured penguins: Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy. Another writer might have commented on the inanity of the nicknames. Instead, Hood observes, “what the penguins named the keepers, we do not know.”

Novelizing Turkish Feminism: On Suat Derviş’s ‘In the Shadow of the Yalı’


The novel In the Shadow of the Yalı has been translated afresh for contemporary Anglophone readers by Maureen Freely, an author of seven novels, chair of English PEN, and perhaps best known as a translator for Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In the Shadow of the Yalı was initially written as a Turkish newspaper serial in 1944, and Freely likens its flamboyant prose to the heady atmosphere of midcentury feminism led by Simone du Beauvoir, particularly in her book The Second Sex. When Suat Derviş’s pulpy novel first appeared for Turkish readers, France had just granted women the right to vote, a full decade following Turkey’s suffragette movement, which, while granting women voting rights in 1934, did not overturn single-party rule until 1950.

In the wake of such seemingly garish political contradiction, Derviş and her sister, Hamiyet, lived and starved in Paris between the Literary Left and the Communist Party, the latter eventually supporting Derviş because of her connections with poet Nazim Hikmet, who was then exiled from Turkey in the Soviet Union. In France, she rewrote her novel in Turkish, and Hamiyet translated it into French. The sisters were navigating the borders of liberality, where society and literature were lovers whose intimacies turned heads from Paris to Istanbul. Freely reflected on the pressures that Derviş experienced from the general secretary of the French Communist Party, putting her name to romantic fictions that served to express the very bind in which women were caught: between stable marriages and impetuous affairs, under the multigenerational gravity of patronymic male inheritance, and at the mercy of officialdoms that treated women as voiceless functionaries born to uphold family honor.

In the Shadow of the Yalı, as it appears in the 2021 edition published by Other Press, is more true to the Turkish original, even if Freely herself confessed that its language was “breathy,” “occasionally baggy,” and dripped with the “gothic excess” of its emotional extravagance, making it comparable to a soap opera or telenovela. The plot is simple, even redundant, and although its literary merit is arguably farfetched, Derviş wrote with an evergreen intuition for metaphor. It is a classic tale of wifely disenfranchisement, of a party-going modern woman named Celile who goes from a steady, 10-year marriage with Ahmet to his financier and her seducer, Muhsin, whose political ambitions and unrivaled wealth appear as spectacular as the night sky. Celile, however, is from a decrepit Ottoman yalı, or seafront mansion on the Bosphorus strait, many of which still dot Istanbul’s shores. Her romantic tragedy is indicative of the dishonor that Ottoman families endured as 1920s modernism roared them into oblivion.

Derviş was a prolific novelist, writing since the age of 16, setting her fictions in the manner of social realism, a genre that, when she wrote, was surpassed by interwar postmodernism. Yet, with Turkish women as her readers, she drew her genteel audience to the page amidst a progressive if censorial publishing climate in Turkey that had printed feminist news and views since the 1870s. She had led double lives in those pages, as a political journalist, she earned the attention of her mostly male readership while becoming a popular subject of interest herself. She could be found overspending at dessert cafes in sight of the Bosphorus mansions that she novelized to capture Ottoman decadence—a reality that continues in Turkey’s government culture of Islamic populism. In the Shadow of the Yalı frames Celile and her mansion-bound grandmother, Çeşmiahu, as figments of a vestigial past in confrontation with a sociopolitical guard that, while changing, adheres to a shared and ongoing patriarchy in which Turkish women fall between the cracks of male-led Westernization.

Çeşmiahu is a lightly fictionalized autobiographical adaptation of Derviş’s grandmother, as both grew up as Circassian slaves to the sultan’s harem before being married to wealthy pashas. Yet, if Freely’s prefatory biographical notes are any indication, Celile was perhaps the least like Derviş herself (their beret-clad feminist bohemian fashion sense might have been similar). Although she would go on to marry the general secretary of the Turkish Communist Party, Derviş preferred to be seen as an independent woman, not in her husband’s shadow. She demanded to be introduced as a writer, not a wife. That the status quo saw her as subordinate to her spouse runs parallel to Celile, not only in the shadow of the Ottoman yalı but of her husband and lover. She rewrote her novel in French, but, as Freely’s translation emphasizes, its English reads like a quotidian Ottoman romance, Francophile in its gushing melodrama, roundly simplistic and full of tropes that challenge the reader to wonder if, at times, Derviş merely co-opted the salable objectification of women that she spent a lifetime rewriting, exposing, and overturning.

Toward the novel’s end, Celile repeatedly bemoans her fate, pitying herself after listening to Muhsin mansplain her into submission to convince her that their love is such that they need not marry, appear in public, or, when she is pregnant, have a child. But she later hides three months of pregnancy from him. He reacts by demanding she abort the baby. As a narrator and in Celile’s voice, Derviş blurred representation and critique of misogyny for dramatic effect: “‘What a helpless, passive creature I am!’ she thought. She lacked the will to die, just as she lacked the will to live.” In other passages, such as when Celile goes missing on the night of another young woman’s death, Derviş uses terms like “loose” or “demented” for women (as translated into English by Freely).

Celile’s character is divulged elaborately, her personality formed in the vise of her school, which was mostly comprised of modern children from the “new order.” That she came from a “rotting, crumbling yalı” where “dying traditions” could be smelled in the air, placed her square outside of the social life of her fellow students. Her anxiety as an outsider defined her marriage, although her condition, which she suppressed, went unnoticed by her husband Ahmet, who would not be able to detect her affair until Muhsin broke the news to him face-to-face. It was 10 years after they were married when Ahmet came across Muhsin at a “gazino,” where men gathered to eat, drink, and revel. Muhsin secured a bank guarantee for Ahmet, who had been involved in smuggling food from Bulgaria.

In the Shadow of the Yalı is shaped by the narrator’s voice, an omniscient observer whose running commentary reflects on Celile’s experience as a woman in Istanbul, where, despite being married, “a beautiful woman was always under watch, no matter how private or solitary her life.” The narrator wonders, on behalf of Muhsin, why Ahmet might exhibit his wife, and more, why she might accept his advances. The colorful narration has the effect of fomenting a gossipy Greek chorus that explores the dramatic tensions of moral conscience against the temptations of love and money—and of belonging to the saga of modernism. When the cat is out of the bag and Celile’s affair with Muhsin is known, Ahmet responds, firstly, with affectionate forgiveness. His relatively progressive stance is matched by Muhsin, who poses a number of arguments for Celile to remain with him, in love, but unwed.

Quite quickly, Celile exclaims that she loves Muhsin, the words falling from her lips to enchant him. As the narrator unsentimentally explains, “Wouldn’t any woman say this to her lover as she lay in his arms in his small apartment.” It is his love that provides an antidote, however fleeting and deceptive, to her lifelong waywardness. The yalı’s shadow lifts when they consummate their passion, and by the force of their desire slaked, she is, as Derviş wrote: “Freed at last from the decaying yalı and its dying breed.”

There is an undercurrent to Muhsin’s motives in which his desire to subdue Celile comes to symbolize the assimilative, even imperialistic tendencies of modernism. Celile, to him, is not merely a beautiful woman, nor simply the wife of his underling business partner, but an emblem of the past that they would all like to see snuffed out. After describing the voluptuous features of Celile—her “leopard eyes” and “white skin, soft as velvet”—Derviş wrote: “For what he sensed in Celile’s devotion was the extravagance of the old aristocrats, whose wealth and power belonged to the distant past.”

But instead of digging further into a more nuanced tale of socio-historical metaphor, Derviş, pressured by the conditioning of her immediate social spheres among the elite leftists who supported her in Paris, dove headlong into what Freely has called “puzzling aspects of indigenous sexual mores.” These, as her novel reads, are the surface-level tit-for-tat in which Muhsin and Ahmet engage, quite pathetically, by a series of unspoken or indirect gestures. Theirs is a shamefaced and rather flaccid passive-aggressive male sexual competition over the possession of a woman. The sore loser, Ahmet rages at parties defaming his wife as a prostitute, while Muhsin is rankled by doubt and jealousy. He imagines that Celile has successfully played him to benefit her husband, sacrificing herself to social suicide out of love for Ahmet, or worse that, eventually, she could leave him too.

Ultimately, Derviş leaves the last word to Celile, but her utterance is as obscure and unfulfilled as her very life. The men, as is common to patriarchal oppression, are heavy-handed in their words and actions so that by the time she has a moment to speak, she has lost all sense of love, life, and self. She is still every bit in the shadow of the yalı, those fixtures of the past that, like American suburbia or the downtown tenements of New York and Istanbul, once glimmered with the sheen of hope but since have endured the depravities of impoverishment—returning to capture the imagination of new money and old stories.

Grace and Oblivion in the Forgotten Neighborhoods of ‘Shaky Town’


Knowing full well that every city’s defining sights take up only a scant percentage of the whole, Lou Mathews has spent much of his life chronicling the ignored sectors of Los Angeles. His stories investigate the ways in which our best and worst tendencies play out in community—and the paradoxical manner in which community itself both preys upon and elevates the individuals within it. Yet, like the broken neighborhoods his fiction documents, Lou Mathews’s work has remained rather close to the shadows, its many qualities passed over as readers make their way to established literary landmarks. This is an unfair oversight that his newest work, Shaky Town, is poised to correct.

Shaky Town is a tough and beautiful mural of a novel constructed though interwoven short stories that explore the streets of East Los Angeles in the 1980s. Eschewing even the faintest strain of stereotypical L.A. glam, Shaky Town is populated with chain link fences instead of pools, pollution instead of seashores, and the “watercolor sadness of smog,” as an art professor tells his students.

Like the city itself, Shaky Town is situated precariously on a latticework of geological, interpersonal, and psychological fault lines. The characters and locations crisscross each other’s narratives, providing the novel’s natural sense of zoning. Throughout the book, our through-line is Emiliano, the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town. We are first introduced to Emiliano in “Emiliano Part I: The Mayor Proclaims” as he chats up a “constituent” at a bus stop, trying to convince him that they share a knowledge of Spanish. When the “constituent” denies this, Emiliano says, “You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno… That’s part of the language,” which causes a chuckle and a small degree of camaraderie. In Lou Mathews’s capable hands, it is enough.

And it is essential: after this fleeting moment, the stories veer sharply into tragedy, beginning with Emiliano recapping his long life in Shaky Town. Employed, years prior, by the movie industry to make breakaway furniture for fight scenes, Emiliano lost three of his fingers while working drunk after his son died of polio. “I measured wrong… The table saw didn’t care.”

Soon after, in “Crazy Life,” we follow Dulcie Gomez as she goes to the police station to advocate for her boyfriend, Chuey, freshly arrested for his role as wheel man in a drive-by. Chuey now shares a cell with the Mephistophelian Sleepy Chavez, who did the actual shooting and threw the gun out the window to blur responsibility. Dulcie knows if Chuey betrays Sleepy, he is putting himself in immediate danger from the gang. But, if he doesn’t, he will take the fall and enter the legal system. So, Dulcie watches helplessly as Chuey shuts down in indecision and the lawyer “packs his briefcase and walks away, shaking hands with everybody. The TV is waiting for him outside.” Though Chuey will eventually choose, we already know neither choice leads to good things.

“The Garlic Eater” finds Mr. Kim buying a local grocery store, in which he proudly displays Korean flags and products behind the counter. His wife “thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn’t steal behind the counter, but Mr. Kim liked the display.” Immediately after opening, Mr. Kim is greeted with the tough realities of his new neighborhood and, shortly after his wife is brutally beaten by the junkies he is trying to fend off, he decides to stand his ground—and to buy a gun.

Providing the emotional center of the book, “Emiliano Part II: A Curse on Chavez Ravine” recounts the redevelopment Chavez Ravine in the 1950’s to accommodate the construction of Dodger Stadium. The stadium, Emiliano says, is built upon a place that once was “like living in the hill country of Mexico. No paved streets, no sewers, no electricity… It smelled like Mexico. Woodsmoke, chiles… tortillas, and beans. Roosters woke you in the morning, but you could see City Hall.” But the city unscrupulously repossessed the land from residents, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed. Emiliano recounts how his Aunt Lupe fought the city by chaining herself to her house. When she failed to stop the demolition, she put a curse “on any Latino who played for the Dodgers.”

Then, with “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” we return to the book’s current time, as an art professor punctuates his commute with liquor stores and drinks his way home, “safe: inside the car, behind the [sun]glasses, surrounded by music” while his mother is in a nearby hospital, dying from cancer.

In “Con Safos Rifa,” aimless machismo drives a group of St. Patrick’s high school students to arrange a fight with students from a rival school. As it turns out, the fight would have been a rout aided by local gang members had the St. Patrick’s students not first been arrested while waiting for their opponents to arrive.

Again and again, oddly graceful moments present themselves as the antidotes to the haze of violence and self-destruction. Emiliano, in “Emiliano Part III: Last Dance,” delivers a speech praising a neighbor he resents at her 75th birthday party after the priest scheduled to give the speech doesn’t show up. Emiliano paints a lush and flattering portrait for the crowd and, though he doesn’t believe his own words, his speech is a balm for his neighbor’s hidden emotional wounds. After the speech, he dances with her while the band plays her unfaithful late husband’s favorite song, then he leads “her to the dark corner of the gym so that her family won’t see her crying and blame me.”

In the eponymous novella occupying the bulk of the book’s closing, Brother Cyril, the newly appointed dean of discipline at St. Patrick’s, discovers his position was previously occupied by a priest who had molested numerous children. Learning the school’s new marble alter table had recently been donated by the diocese in exchange for the school’s willingness to harbor the priest, Brother Cyril takes a hammer and destroys the gift. His faith in the church shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitution.

Finally, with “Emiliano Part IV: Ride the Black Horse,” we are presented with a panoramic view of the earthquake we’ve long been sensing. Providing a perfect coda, Emiliano describes how the landscape itself loses solidity. “The freeways looked like gray snakes rippling upward… The hills of Elysian Park humped and twisted.”

Lou Mathews never shies away from exploring the way integrity so often becomes a liability diametrically opposed to self-preservation. Again and again, the social, emotional, and economic fissures that striate Shaky Town are exposed by sudden bursts of pent-up aggression. Our choice of actions may not be easy, Mathews reminds us, but it is usually clear: though there is often no reward, do the right thing.

With Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has constructed a prismatic singularity replete with elegant and empathetic renderings of people forced to weigh difficult choices. The stories gleam, despite their sadness, with the glow of every person’s potential to rise above the wreckage that surrounds them or, if nothing else, to go down swinging for what they know, beyond all else, is true.