Tonight, in Brooklyn, I read at the Franklin Park Reading Series with my buddy Lincoln Michel and some other great writers: Alexandra Kleeman, Simeon Marsalis, and Marie-Helene Bertino. It should be a varied and excellent event. Come on out if you can.
This morning, I woke up to a surprise publication of my short story “Colonial Conditions” over at The Yale Review. And last Friday, I appeared on the NYT Book Review Podcast to discuss my cover review of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You. This weekend, I’ll be in Provincetown for the Book Festival. Come on out if you’re around.
It’s been a busy few weeks since I moved to the city, but things seem mostly to be trending in the right direction by which I mostly mean that my furniture is almost all delivered. I’m just waiting on my mattress and some living room furniture to round things out. Looking forward to having this place fully outfitted and furnished.
You never know how many things you have and how many of those things aren’t what you need until you move. Or until you’re on the fifth floor of a walk-up and facing down the prospect of having to haul a printer up all those stairs. You quickly begin to think about what is and is not essential to your functioning. What can be done without and therefore was never truly essential to your way of life. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that your way of life itself changes and some things become essential and some things become unessential. Or maybe nothing changes except your own sense of what you need and are willing to do without once you’re faced with having to haul it up the stairs in your curiously humid and warm stairwell. At any rate, a move is an opportunity for some inner and outer accounting. You think it all over.
I am looking forward to becoming caked up for the gods, though.
Reading has been curiously stagnant the last couple of weeks. It’s so hard for me to focus when I’m always listening out for the buzzer or refreshing my shipping information. When something’s out for delivery, I basically just hang up the prospect of getting any work done at all. No reading, no writing, just stupefied gazing at Law and Order. I haven’t even been able to focus on movies or music. Nothing sticks to the surface of my attention. Everything feels twitchy and jittery, like a holographic trading card. I’m even distracted from the distractions by things that don’t even cohere into true objects in my mind. It’s like glancing in five directions at once to catch some lurking shadow on my mind’s periphery. Electrospray ionized attention. That one’s for my science nerds.
While I have not been able to read a lot, I have talked a lot about reading, which is a status I find almost as insufferable as not being able to read. I feel like when book people ask you what you’re reading, you’re forced into this weird double-bind in which you are supposed to have just the right translated novella or just the right recently rediscovered madwoman from the midcentury or ideally just the right translated novella by a recently discovered madwoman from the midcentury. Or you’re supposed to shrug and say that you are overwhelmed and that reading feels vulgar and too hard right now. I used to marvel at this when I was at Iowa, the extent to which people actively performed their not reading or their narrow reading as though this was a moral activity. In New York, the game is slightly different. When people ask what you’re reading, there is an element of pre-emptive envy and snide judgement. As if saying to themselves, to the perceived audience, to the DMs: Look at this asshole, I bet they say something good. Fuck them.
I did start a book on the Subway the other day though. I got Sheila Heti’s new book, a novel called Pure Color. It’s a strange book, at times seemingly more a set of vignettes or prose poems than a novel. But that’s Heti for you. That kind of compelling destabilization of form that in some people’s hands just feels like tedious mimesis of altered states of consciousness. There have been several moments in the first third of this book where I’ve had to put it down and just stare out the train window and ponder not so much the content of the words as the weird state they’ve put me in. One of ruminating on the nature of existence. I feel, reading this novel, the way I sometimes felt when I first read the parody of the symbolist play in Chekhov’s The Seagull. I feel like she’s up to something similar. Not similar to Chekhov in The Seagull. But what Treplev, the playwright is up to, when he writes those weird, symbolistic monologues. Getting at something behind or below the language but using the language itself. Kind of a self-excavating expedition into the heart of being. But spare and lucid. I’m liking it. I think I’m liking it. It’s hard to say, kind of like Women Talking by Miriam Toews, where the reader’s enjoyment isn’t really the point.
There’s something else interesting about Pure Color though. Because while there are these prose poems nestled into the book, there are also these really funny and kind of brutal depictions of the narrator trying to learn how to be an art critic. So in one sense, it’s one of those contemporary novels about a young person trying to justify the importance of art to themselves and to contemporary society, which, not the most compelling of genres unless you are about thirty to forty-two and also trying to resolve such questions in your own life and work. I don’t want to get too into it. I’ve already kind of written about that elsewhere. But I do bring it up to say that the book is, so far, also very funny in addition to being deeply heady and philosophically minded. There is something kind of throw-back-y about it in that way. The sort of unabashed symbolical impulse at work in the book. Heti’s on to something. I’m not sure what’s awaiting me in the rest of the book, but so far, I’m all in.
I went to The Met yesterday for the first time ever. I was in Starbucks and loitering around that part of the Upper East Side, waiting to hear back from a friend about some plans we might have later in Central Park. I thought the chances of hearing back were pretty low because it’s New York and it’s September, and it’s a time for making plans and breaking plans and surrendering yourself to the vibe of the city. So I decided that I would go to the Met, and I was in luck because there was a timed ticket available.
It was, obviously, a beautiful space. That soaring atrium. The great hall. The stairs leading up to the Medieval section. The carved Madonnas and tapestries. I thought, how miraculous, that things could be old. That they could exist in this time and place after having been made by human hands and passed down through time. I come from a lineage of crude redactions. My history is brutally simple, on purpose. Encountering the statues and the tapestries, the images that recur and repeat was like coming into contact with an entirely different mode of living, as though the people who had come out of that time belonged to an entirely different brand of humanity. And what was remarkable to me was how everything I saw vibrated with, not just meaning, but with life. Here were pieces of art older than our country, and yet the short, dark life of that country had machined down the whole history of my family into its stubby rudiments. How nuts is that? I mean, truly, how nuts is that? Some bleak, furious part of myself wondered why the race war hadn’t started because here were white people bragging about the long, continuous line of their history, or, showing off their attempts to link themselves to a long, continuous line of history while here I was standing before it shorn of my antecedents and ancestors. And they expect me to just be like, Ah, the great chain of being. We are all connected, this is my history too. When, like, nigga, it absolutely is not.
White people truly be on one.
Anyway, I went up the stairs to see the Medici portraits. I loved the Bronzino and Titian ones especially. The reds, the rich blacks. The lush velvets, the careful attention to the pleats and folds of the sleeves denoting tension or calm, relaxation, pensiveness. Bronzino is incredibly good at fingers. His hands have a human fleshiness, delicate tapers or blunt ends. I was moved by the careful ministrations he brought to facial hair. The way light strikes different parts of a beard in different ways, the subtle lightening near a man’s temples or the corner of his mouth. It was so beautiful. The deep, sensitive eyes. Brown or ocher. For me, the real revelation of the exhibit was Salviati, who I had never heard of before. I was so startled by the liveliness of his faces. The quick play of light across brows or eyelashes, the microexpressions that emerged upon close inspection. He painted so sensitively and with such expression, a kind of innate romanticism, capturing his subjects in moments of vulnerability. There is something so soft about Salviati. He doesn’t have Bronzino’s sharpness or clarity. He paints a kind of muddy dream. But what a dream!
The Medici were, of course, important patrons of the arts. They’re somewhere between the Kochs and the Sacklers. But there were plaques to give context to the subjects of the portraits, bits about biography and political climate, but I don’t think the materials on hand really did justice to the complicated political and social reality that the Medici lived in and invented. But that’s too much ask of any set of plaques. There was a man talking to two women in the exhibit who kept confusing the Medici and the Borgias. And I kept wanting to say that he was thinking of Juan, Cesare, and Lucrezia, but I kept that to myself. People are allowed to think what they want to think, even in a museum.
After I left the Medici exhibit, I ended up in an exhibit that something like Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, and upon entering, I spotted a Frankenthaler across the gallery and sprinted by the Pollocks and Rothkos to get to it. The Frankenthaler was “Stride” which feels curiously American. It’s a long descending arc of orange. On the extreme left, there is another orange streak that seems interrupted, bifurcated. You expect to be able to it continued on the side of the canvas if you turned it. The piece is not my favorite Frankenthaler. But it’s is bright and direct. Lively. The Pollocks were very good. “Autumn Rhythm” and one of the Untitled PAINTINGS. So lyrical. You could almost hear it. Such presence in person. Looming over you. It’s hard stand in front of “Autumn Rhythm” and think he’s overrated. Because it does something to you. I wish they’d had a better Frankenthaler though. The Lee Krasner was a little cheesy. The Rothko was underwhelming in person. My favorite bit of that exhibit was Franz Kline, though. So intense. Dark slashes over white. On the edges, the different whites pile up and because of the gestural brushwork, they feel like waves crashing. The violence of the surface. Running horizontally along the lower third of the canvas was a little streak that felt like a line of symmetry, reflecting an impartial portion of the top part of the canvas into the lower part, but a distorted reflection. Such potency. Like a scattered reflection of a cityscape after you toss a rock into the fountain. Or a boat capsizing. Or some dark, inner scene. I stood there staring at it for a long, long time. Trying to soak it in, but also feeling so confronted by it. Wow, just wow. I’m going to try to go back and see it later in the week. I would go today, but it’s the Met Gala, so, I’m assuming they won’t want me poking around trying to see the Franz Kline.
I also want to go back for “In Praise of Painting” to see the Dutch masters. And also Ilya Repin, who is important to me.
Anyway, short letter this week. Please read “Colonial Conditions” and come see me at Franklin Park and such. Thanks.