Art for Issue 31


Bringing the War Home

Numbers are not everything. The murder of an ordinary person will do little to register in the public imagination beyond a day or two of news coverage, while the murder of a head of state will provoke an international crisis. The symbolic resonance of a violent act matters, and a society that guns down children in school is one in which something has gone very wrong. But as with terrorist attacks, the symbolism of school shootings mutates into spectacle, and if symbolism resonates like a plucked guitar string, the spectacle is the sound of that string fed into an amplifier and then trapped in a feedback loop, increasing in volume and intensity until the only possible response is panic and anger.

Bad TV

That Transparent can make you feel political — the way, say, This Is Us can make you feel sad — implies that the political is essentially a special effect, a trick of the light, TV magic. The full discomfiture of this claim can be shrugged off as long as you maintain the fantasy that somewhere out there, in the bleeding wilds of the world, there exists a secret glade called Politics where the gods of history dance. This will let you cleanly cleave the world in two: true and pretend, genuine leftism and performative wokeness, real life and the stuff of television. The scarier thought is that feeling political is all that politics is. In truth, you can’t book a direct flight to the political. There are always layovers in aesthetic form: in tone, mood, shape, and everything else a work of art might employ to try to get you to feel part of something bigger than yourself.

Code Red

Despite tech executives’ insistence that their industry is incompatible with unions, labor organizing among scientists is common enough. Take the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, a union that represents more than 22,650 professionals, or the faculty and graduate-student unions that represent many white-collar professionals, many of whom go on to work in tech. Add the Alliance@IBM, a union of dues-paying IBM employees that existed from 1999 to 2016; WashTech, formed by contract workers at Microsoft; the union-like Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which boasts a worldwide membership of more than 423,000, mostly made up of electrical engineers; and the Programmer’s Guild, which “advances the interests of technical and professional workers” in IT.

Fire in Jakarta

Ashoy showed me a photo on his phone and said coyly, “Look, a victim of the fire.” It was him: Ashoy on his back, sunbathing on a cardboard mat in the black, burned-out remains. He swiped to a photo of himself kneeling in the same spot, with a man handing him a wad of cash. He zoomed in on the wad and said, “That is $10,000.”

Superking Son Scores Again

We hid behind the stacked crates and spied on them. Superking Son was in the center of the circle, staring intently at the floor. His hand seemed stuck to his chin. Some ghostly vision played out in front of his eyes, and it shocked the color out of him. Cha Quai Factory Son was there too, his hands on Superking Son’s shoulders, like he was both consoling him and holding him back from doing something stupid. A wave of money flashed around the circle, only stopping to be counted and recounted, probably to make sure no one had slipped any bills into his pocket.

Two Stories

Novelty disturbed Edward; he made an awkward remark or two about the old woman, was only happy when he had been reminded of one he saw years ago and could supply a polished little story for the occasion. Repetition disturbed Maria; it was like trying to play jazz with someone who has the sheet music for “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and works it in whenever he can.

You Can't Read

What’s that you’re saying now? Oh, it was your grandmother who didn’t know how to read, and you’ve been in the school system from preschool to college? I see, so you really don’t get what’s going on when people talk to you. Your grandmother, your sister, you, it’s all the same. Don’t you get it? You believe in assimilation, you only wore a headscarf for a couple of years when you were a teenager — that’s fine. But, I mean, we can’t just let go and leave what is French in your hands.

Letter to Freud

When I lived in Manhattan for two years, on the Upper West Side, I liked to go to the gym at the Jewish Community Center across the street from me, a kind of glass pyramid filled with natural light. After working out, I’d shower with the center’s members, Jewish women from the neighborhood, braving the sight, in their eyes, of an unexpected brown body. Naked, staring at the metal pipes as if something else besides hot water could come out of them, I felt it each time: the shock of standing with this community, confronting a still recent history.

An Account of My Hut

The weekend before the fires I attended a grief workshop sponsored by the climate change group. They told us grief processed on one’s own turns to despair, but grief processed communally becomes medicine. Now that we knew the reality of climate change, we would grieve the Earth. That way grief wouldn’t hold us back when it was time to mobilize. To prepare us, they drew two circles on the board. Your Comfort Zone was written inside one circle. In the second circle, some distance from the first, they wrote, Where the Magic Happens.

Missing Time

The series wasn’t science fictional at all, but took place in a world just like our own, where women being poisoned by their microwaves floated around with Lyndon LaRouche supporters and AIDS denialists and 12-year-old ex-communists in dubious pursuit of a history of the present. There they were, serially archived on a single flashing screen, from the Loch Ness monster and the chupacabra to the JFK assassination and the defamation of Anita Hill. In the last years of the 20th century, this solar system of conspiratorial thinking was where the postmodern condition lived its best life. You could find yourself in cozy exile there, social theorists said, if you’d tried too hard to picture technoscientific global capitalism and your brain broke. I’d barely begun to try, and mine already had.

Two Stops

I still wanted to know that the articles were being published, and in large quantities, but reading stories of abuse and humiliation, like the big Bill Cosby exposé from a few years back, was as stupefying as a hangover. I didn’t feel empowered; I only felt more hopeless. I wanted to watch the patriarchy go up in flames, but I wasn’t excited about what was being pitched to replace it. If we got all of it out in the open, what would we have left? My fear was that guilt would destroy the classics and there’d be no one left to fuck. All movies would be as low-budget and puritanical as the stuff they play on Lifetime, all of New York would look like a Target ad, every book or article would be a cathartic tell-all, and I’d be sexually frustrated but too ashamed to hook up with assholes, or even to watch porn.

Day of Memory

I was scared that the ghosts would know that I didn’t know who I was crying for. That “they” would think it was dumb that it was for all of them, that it was for none of them. I resisted letting myself feel too much pain, because it is only my pain, and weeping from it would have just been for me. I could still hear the ceremony, recordings of treacly music swelling between the speeches, then cut off abruptly. I thought they would understand that I was just trying not to make up feelings about things I knew nothing about, and would not think I was callous. That they would appreciate my restraint, my knowledge that I knew nothing of them. I already didn’t like how suddenly I’d made these “ghosts” so attentively follow my thoughts. Just because they were keeping me from eating blueberries.

Sanctuaries of Trust and Caring

Back in the 1990s, I predicted — maybe it was after I saw Happiness — that sound design would soon get so extreme that there would be a movie in which we heard not just the sound of salt leaving a saltshaker, but also the sound of it hitting the food. With Phantom Thread, that day has come.

Coming in from the Cold

The spy novel departs from its social-realist cousins, even the police procedural: crime gathers a large web of social interactions; espionage remains sealed off from the world at large. Cause and effect do not ramify outward, in horizontal networks; they move from big, those cold brains in a small room, to little, in a vertical cascade. The answer is inside, but it is also obvious, a purloined letter too large for any other genre’s frame.

Both Sides Now

Swing Time is the first of Smith’s books to abandon the omniscient third person and restrict itself to a single first-person narrator, a shift that has a seismic effect on the novel. As in Smith’s previous novels, the narrator is responsible for harmonizing a multiplicity of disparate voices and positions. But by assigning this mediating function to a flesh-and-blood character, Swing Time presents it in a new light. Rather than an all-seeing eye, the narrator is now a fallible individual with a necessarily limited perspective. The opposing voices she holds in suspension are no longer abstract — instead, they are attached to specific people, namely her estranged parents. The insistence on seeing both sides, previously a transcendent principle in Smith’s work, here looks more like the survival mechanism of a child of divorce trying to reconcile her parents’ competing claims on her affection.

Clickbait Minotaur; on liking “On Liking Women”

While I have read many articles about the culture of male resentment, I have encountered very few as insightful as “In the Maze.” I consider myself a male feminist, whatever that term connotes these days. Still, I detect hints of the often involuntary negative reaction to cultural trends described in the article in myself. It is, and will likely remain, uncomfortable when you discover that things you consider normal are privileged and not at all self-evident. Moreover, when you learn that behaviors or lifestyles you considered normal, perhaps even desirable, are constructed on the backs of others.