I’ve just finished reading Teju Cole’s novel Every Day is for the Thief, which was originally published in Nigeria in 2007 but has been republished by Random House in the wake of his second novel Open City’s tremendous success. Cole, born in the US and raised in Nigeria, writes in this short autobiographical work of returning on visits to Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. Over the course of the book, Cole’s flaneur-like wanderings touch upon: the state of jazz record and book shops, public transportation, internet scamming, reencountering a first love, power failures, malaria, crime and corruption, religion, and the attempt to read the cultural signs of a country he is both geographically and temporally separated from, but nonetheless closely identifies with. Interspersed throughout the novel are photographs taken by the author. I missed Cole’s visit to New Zealand a couple of years back, but read Open City around that time, which I’m keen to reread. Cole is an active presence on Twitter also and has been offering energetic, aphoristic dispatches on the World Cup lately. For more you can check out Cole’s website and a recent interview from the Guardian.
2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the great American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987), a major figure whose works spanned novels, essays, poems, and plays. He conveyed a sense of finely tuned rage at the ubiquitous racism in America in his essays (The Fire Next Time), wrote a memorable novel about the experiences of a gay expatriate in Paris (Giovanni’s Room), another about 1950s Greenwich Village hipsters (Another Country), and was a renowned public intellectual and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Reading his work for me I remember as a kind of rite of passage as his work particularly speaks to the anger, confusion, and questions of identity so characteristic of youth, but I believe his poetic resonance crosses time as well. He was a major influence on other writers, including Toni Morrison, and was a friend of such seemingly disparate figures as Miles Davis and Marlon Brando. Perhaps the fact that he lived most of his later years in France has diffused his legacy and status in America, but I was very pleased to read that several New York cultural institutions are celebrating his work with events throughout the course of the year. You can read an article covering this in The Brooklyn Rail, 7 life lessons from Baldwin’s Paris Review interview at BreakingBrown.com, and for a fascinating full-length documentary screened on US public television a number of years ago you can watch James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.
I certainly wasn’t intending to give the impression that I’m writing an “obituaries blog” but some very important artistic figures have died recently, and in the cases of Ricard and Hoffman, although I never met either personally, both took up a huge amount of space in my cultural imagination. Of the two, Hoffman would need little introduction for anyone remotely familiar with the last couple of decades of Hollywood cinema, and he is already being proclaimed as “greatest actor of his generation.” Such superlatives are meaningless, especially now, but I would agree with that assessment. I spent many hours wading through almost every movie he made over the years, even if awful, just considering that his mere involvement would likely make it worth my time. Ricard was far less known in the wider circles of popular culture but an integral figure in the New York art world as a critic and poet, and in more recent years as a painter who inscribed poetic phrases onto his canvases. His 1981 essay “The Radiant Child” is one of the most memorable pieces on artists Keith Haring and Jean Michel-Basquiat. I had the fortunate opportunity to write on Ricard for a catalogue of a 2005 exhibition entitled Sad Songs curated by artist Bill Conger and wrote: “These recent paintings are inscribed with breathless anecdotes, as if Haikus hastily scrawled in lipstick onto a bathroom mirror. While artists today are frequently at odds with painting, Ricard offers paintings at odds with themselves, as if deciding whether to be texts, images, or from a distance appealingly bright, monochromatic ciphers. … The poet has always been brutally confessional in his writings, but this approach is often leavened with an unlikely degree of tenderness. Ricard is often abrasive yet the confirmed aesthete.” Given the wild circles that Ricard travelled with over the years—Warhol’s Factory and the East Village Scene—his death of cancer at the age of 67 effectively means he outlived so many of his contemporaries, while Hoffman, purportedly dead of a drug overdose, at the age of 46 has died prematurely, terribly, and avoidably. Read Ricard’s writings, watch Hoffman’s filmography. Both are revelatory.
Benjamin Moser, the authorized biographer of writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004), often acknowledged front-runner for intellectual hottie of the previous century, provides an engaging account of his (and others) involvement in scouring her formidable archives on the New Yorker magazine’s blog. And if you have dipped into the recently published journals it becomes evident how Sontag was an inveterate notetaker, often incorporating abbreviated bits that would be challenging for most any researcher. Particularly fascinating beyond the sheer volume of paper material is how archivists are contending with preserving her e-mails. And as Moser recounts: “Susan Sontag wrote seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails, which will soon be available for consultation on a special laptop. I was given a special viewing at the library, and the experience gave me a queasiness that I have never felt during the years I have conducted historical research.”
I've been reading between my hapless attempts to multitask LIttle Failure, the hilarious new memoir by novelist Gary Shteyngart. It's a bit (put very bluntly) as if Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory were remixed by a Generation Xer—and I hope that description tempts! Haven't gotten far enough and maybe not enough clear headed brain space to manage a "proper" book review, but I was amused by the author's Q and A on the New York Times' site in which he states: "I like stories where people suffer a lot. If there's no suffering, I kind of tune out." You can read the full (brief) "By the Book" gabfest here.
What is to be done about this person??? Beats me, definitely beyond my pay grade and roles and responsibilities, so to speak. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Choire Sicha's perverse review of the recent opus penned by the supposedly polymathic mutant-like creature that is Mr. Franco posted on Bookforum.
Better rephrase that, I am not exactly "being killed" by an American writer, but I'm reading his newest collection of short stories (a lucky thirteen) entitled The Fun Parts (yes, likely it's ironic, dig?) and I find myself nearly doubled over with semi-embarrassed mirth. That is, the stories feature incredibly well-wrought prose and awkward, horrifying yet hilarious situations: a sarcastic male doula (or, "doulo"), a deranged dungeon and dragons game, a troubled poet working in early childcare, men reminiscing about their teenage shotputting days, a Jewish dance teacher in recovery who spends time with a Holocaust denier: maybe not tempting as premises, but they unfold into weirdly unexpected but very human, and richly strange encounters and moments. Lipsyte's 2010 novel The Ask was an inspired comedic take on the plight of the over-educated, under-employed folk of recent years, but he is dark, man, dark! Same goes for his excellent first collection of stories Venus Drive. The author himself is pretty successful these days, teaching in a prestigious university in New York and gaining more and more critical acclaim, but don't let that stop you, he's very much worth checking out. You can read an interview with Lipsyte in Bookforum here and I've posted a pretty superficial but short clip of Lipsyte on a Brooklyn chat show below. Many lengthier interviews posted around the interwebs as well such as Michael Silverblatt's fine radio one on his KCRW program Bookworm.