This Week in Books: A Girl Online
“Am I not already half-dead myself? Have my opinions not changed?”
“Marguerite Young spent eighteen years of her life writing Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the amount of time it requires to raise a child… She was working on Miss MacIntosh at the time of Jackie Robinson’s first game, and throughout the spring of the McCarthy hearings, and the winter the Beatles first arrived in the US. None of these events appear in the novel, which is not interested in cultural or political landmarks, or, for that matter, linear time. Its characters seem to exist in a holding chamber that stands outside of history, an imaginative space that has absorbed the general atmosphere of the 20th century, its aroma, its texture, but none of its content.”
Time as vibe, history as aesthetic. This is a sentiment echoed by Chateaubriand’s lament—in the most recent installment of his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (NYRB), as translated by Alex Andriesse—that the specifics of the momentous political events he had spent his life attempting to chronicle no longer seemed to matter:
Thirty-six years divide the events that set my memoirs in motion from those that occupy me today. How can I resume, with any real intensity, the narration of a subject that once filled me with fire and passion, now that there are no longer any living people with whom I can speak of these things, now that it is a matter of reviving frozen effigies from the depths of Eternity and descending into a burial vault to play at life? Am I not already half-dead myself? Have my opinions not changed? Can I still see things from the same point of view? The prodigious public events that accompanied or followed those private events that so perturbed me—has their importance not dwindled in the eyes of the world, as it has in my own? Anyone who prolongs his career on earth feels a chill descending on his days; he no longer finds tomorrow as interesting as he found it yesterday. When I rack my brains, there are names, and even people, that escape me, no matter how much they once may have caused my heart to pound...
Forgive me for having such poisoned thoughts, but that last sentence feels like it could have been written by some veteran shitposter reflecting on their glory days battling in the trenches of twitter warfare. It puts me in the mind of this back and forth between Charlie Markbreiter and Xine Yao. They are discussing Yao’s Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (Duke).
[MARKBREITER:] This reminds me of my “getting in fights with people on Twitter” era lol. I’d tell my enemies, “I’m right,” and they’d just be like, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” Which was embarrassing because it was true. I’m obsessed with you in that I’m giving you so much of my energy. And, in an attention economy, what could be more of a self-own?
[YAO:] It reminds me of the bullying we experience as children. And how it heightens your self-surveillance and our attempts to become as non-responsive as possible so that the bullies don’t get any pleasure out of picking on you. When people portray the trauma response of dissociative shut-down, they usually vilify it. But just because you need to switch off doesn’t mean you’re dissembling. You’re making a decision about the allocation of care. Maybe you failed to “rise to the occasion,” but would it actually have mattered if you did?
Would it? I have been asking myself that for some time, regarding this newsletter. But also, I’d rather not talk about it. As Rebecca Liu observes in her review of Joanna Walsh’s Girl Online: A User Manual (Verso):
The price of attention, and the means of getting it, for a girl online, is a trap. The path to your flourishing – delivering the confession – becomes indistinguishable from that of your diminishment. To point out that the girl online is caught in this confessional double bind is not to suggest that confession is the only way forward; there are others who do not choose this path, and thus escape both its soaring rewards and crushing punishments.
But an update is certainly in order. I’m starting this again. We’ll see how it goes. If you used to pay, I’m not turning the payments back on yet. I don’t know when I will do that. Maybe later.
1. “More Is More: Not the Great American Novel but its Jungian shadow” by Meghan O’Gieblyn, n+1
An excerpt from Meghan O’Gieblyn’s introduction to Dalkey Archive’s recent (or forthcoming?—the publication date is either two weeks ago or nine months from now, which, don’t get me wrong, seems thematically very on point) reissue of Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling, originally published in 1965. It’s one of the longest novels ever published, which makes sense since it seems to be about a bus ride in rural Indiana, one of the most interminable experiences on earth.
I’m writing about Miss Macintosh with the apprehension that overshadows the surrender of all beloved cult objects, my impulse to evangelize outweighing, by a slim margin, my reluctance to betray a private devotion. If you are among the readers who have long adored the book, you know well the risks of recommending it. (I have yet to sacrifice a friendship over the novel, though I have lost my respect for a handful of acquaintances whose stamina I badly misjudged.)
…The trials of Miss MacIntosh are unique among modernist literature. It is not so easy, in fact, to locate the source of its difficulty. It is not the difficulty of Joyce, whose philological experiments push language to the very limits of comprehension; nor of Gaddis, with his unattributed dialogue, his Hungarian quotes, his lengthy discourses on Mithraism or Flemish painting. It is not the kind of book that makes one feel smarter for having read it, as is often said of Pynchon’s novels. There are no riddles to solve, no hermetic knowledge humming beneath the surface. No, the discomfort experienced by the reader of Miss MacIntosh is largely passive. It is not unlike the anxiety Odysseus must have felt on the isle of Calypso, hypnotized with song and bewitched by the rhythmic shuttle of the golden loom, slowly realizing that he may never be permitted to leave. It is the uneasiness of a quest mislaid. The story, like the bus, hardly ever moves forward—or rather it moves at a rate too subtle to be observed, and only after returning obsessively to where it began.
2. “Saint Augustine’s Slave Play” by Daniel José Camacho, The Point
Daniel José Camacho writes about the reception of Sarah Ruden’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Modern Library).
…[T]he thread in the Confessions that I overlooked until reading Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation was slavery. Once you see it, its shadow looms everywhere. Not only does Augustine address God as “Master” and Christians as God’s “holy slaves,” he also frames his own spiritual rebellion in terms of a runaway slave. Augustine says to God that “you were lashing me” and “you whipped me severely as a punishment … because I was in love with the ‘freedom’ of a runaway slave.” Elsewhere, God pursues lost humanity like a master “breathing down the neck of [his] runaways,” and Augustine says: “I won’t pass over in silence, the cut of your whip and the amazing speed of your mercy.”
…Some considered this translation offensive and inappropriate. The philosopher James K. A. Smith wrote in response, “I quite literally closed up the Ruden translation in a kind of literary disgust.” Elizabeth Bruenig, who thought there was little to gain from Ruden’s new translation, asked: “Is it really the case that Augustine could not have been imagining both a lord and a master?” Yet Peter Brown, Augustine’s preeminent biographer, defended Ruden’s decision as faithful to Augustine’s language and context…
3. “Chateaubriand on Writing Memoir between Two Societies” by François-René de Chateaubriand, The Paris Review
An excerpt from the second installment of a new NYRB edition of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, translated by Alex Andriesse.
So that we understand each other, it will be useful to take a look around at the current state of my memoirs… What has happened to me is what happens to every contractor working on a large scale. To begin with, I built the outer wings, then—shifting and reshifting my scaffolding—raised the stone and mortar of the structures in between. It took many centuries to complete the Gothic cathedrals. If heaven permits me to go on living, this monument of mine will be finished in the course of my years; the architect, still one and the same, will have changed only in age. Still, it is taxing to keep one’s intellectual being intact, imprisoned in its weather-beaten shell. Saint Augustine, feeling his clay crumbling, said unto God, “Be Thou a tabernacle unto my soul.” And to men he said, “When you find me in these books of mine, pray for me.”
4. “A Star Is Born: Raffi Gessen-Gould’s Examined Life” by Piper French, The Drift
Piper French writes about Raising Raffi: The First Five Years (Viking), Keith Gessen’s memoir of parenthood, in the context of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould’s wider body of work.
…I don’t think younger millennials who were shocked and thrilled by Lauren Oyler’s 2020 smackdown of the beloved writer Jia Tolentino fully understand how mean the literary world used to be. Even the venerated critic Michiko Kakutani fell prey to Keith-and-Emily-derangement syndrome: in a 2014 review of Gould’s novel, the critic quoted an anonymous commenter who had called Gould a “trollop.”
5. “There Are Only Girls on the Internet” by Rebecca Liu, The White Review
Rebecca Liu reviews Joanna Walsh’s Girl Online: A User Manual (Verso).
Towards the end of Girl Online, the narrator observes, ‘I stopped writing online. I stopped writing blogs. I stopped writing on Facebook. I stopped writing on Instagram.’ After deleting Twitter, they ‘saw the walls of my room, small and bare’, and they wondered ‘which had been more real?’ What follows is the questioning of this decision, the inevitable sense of failure and loss: ‘I had handed over the narrative to those who were still online. I had lost. I became one of the unwritten.’
6. “Mother Knows Best” by Bekah Waalkes, The Baffler
Bekah Waalkes reviews Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void (Viking), translated by David Boyd and Lucy North.
Where other anti-work novels conclude by glorifying personal connection or even a retreat from the workplace altogether, Diary of a Void once more refuses. Shibata’s coworkers, her family, and her new aerobics friends offer her no solace, no meaningful connection that can fill the emptiness…
7. “In Filipino Politics, What Is Fact and What Is Fiction?” by Bryony Lau, The Nation
Bryony Lau reviews Miguel Syjuco’s political comedy I Was the President’s Mistress!! (FSG).
…[T]he book is written as a series of interviews submitted by Syjuco to his editor, who publishes the transcripts verbatim for reasons that become clear later. There are 12 interviews with Vita and 12 with her lovers…
Politicians are often happy to talk, but it doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what they’re saying… When Syjuco secretly begins interviewing her ex-lovers, she warns him: “They’ll each try to change your mind, but at some point you’ll need to take a stance and say: this is what I believe is true, and right, and my role in this…”
8. “One of the Earliest Science Fiction Utopias Was a Protest Against Patriarchy” by Tanya Agathocleous, Electric Literature
An excerpt from Tanya Agathocleous’s introduction to a new Penguin Classics edition of Rokeya Hossain’s utopian narratives Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, originally published in 1905 and 1924 respectively.
“Come, all you abandoned, destitute, neglected, helpless, oppressed women—come together. Then we will declare war on society!”
9. “Scum as You Are: The furious comedy of Valerie Solanas” by Wendy Vogel, Artforum
Wendy Vogel reviews the first ever widely available edition of Valerie Solanas’s Up Your Ass (Sternberg/Montana), which is the play she shot Andy Warhol over.
…As the radical feminist activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recalled, Solanas spoke unceasingly about the play during her psychiatric holds and incarceration following the shooting. In the early 1970s, she performed a one-woman version of it while imprisoned for first-degree assault at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Despite Solanas’s insistence on its artistic significance, the play was eclipsed by her strident SCUM Manifesto, published by Girodias’s Olympia Press immediately after her arrest. In fact, Up Your Ass has only been staged once by a professional company. In 2000, George Coates Performance Works mounted a version with an all-female cast in San Francisco, just blocks from the SRO where Solanas died alone, a dozen years earlier, at the age of fifty-two.
10. “Not Feeling It” by Charlie Markbreiter, The New Inquiry
Charlie Markbreiter interviews Xine Yao, author of Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (Duke).
“Berlant’s writing has been so informative for me. But it’s also not the sole determinant of how I approach the world. For example, their diagnosis of citizenship and the good life as exclusionary mechanisms is both extremely helpful and an over-reification of the US and citizenship as the ultimate model. And while they know that citizenship is built upon exclusions, what they don’t really explore is: what if you don’t want citizenship? What does it mean to read their work in the US, as someone who’s not a US citizen and it’s not really interested in being a US citizen and then to feel and stay with that dissonance? In the nineteenth century, Chinese sojourners didn’t always want to stay. Many of them wanted to go home. Which, again, isn’t even about Berlant, but the problem of sympathy, and how the solution is always just, ‘Okay. We’ll do better next time.’”
11. “The Democratic Potential of Cruising” by Jack Parlett, Boston Review
Celebrations of the democratic power of cruising can be traced back at least as far as Walt Whitman, an early prophet of urban queer culture. For Whitman, Manhattan, a “city of orgies,” provided both an enactment of, and analogy for, a new democratic vision of the United States. This vision of a utopian country centered “adhesiveness” and “comradeship,” the “beautiful and sane affection of man for man,” powered by the looks between passing strangers and the new kinds of belonging they might presage. The look of cruising, something Whitman in “Song of the Open Road” calls the “talk of those turning eyeballs,” brings to light a dream of the good life that is equal parts nostalgic and future-oriented—the sense, as he puts it in “To a Stranger,” that “I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,” and will yet again…
12. “Susan Sontag and the Americanization of the Nouveau Roman” by Ben Libman, Post 45
Ben Libman writes about the Americanization of “French Theory” in the mid twentieth century, led by Susan Sontag and the vogue for French novels.
If we want a zero hour, we might look toward a 1959 trip to America undertaken by Claude Ollier and Robert Pinget, two nouveaux romanciers central to the group, socially speaking. The pair formed a delegation under the Young Artist's Project, an initiative spearheaded by the Ford Foundation to better acquaint Americans with young European authors. Their candidacy to the program was supported by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and they followed on the heels of Günther Grass's tour with the same program. Ollier and Pinget wrote frequently to Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute during their visit, often apprising them of the status of the English translations of the group's novels. This final point is not to be missed: by 1960, several novels by Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, and others had been or were being published in English by a number of newly illustrious independent presses — including Grove Press and George Braziller — as well as by the larger Simon & Schuster, whose editors took an interest in Butor. Collectively, these presses, many of which wielded considerable cultural capital within the American field, comprised the third and possibly most powerful prong (alongside Sontag's evangelism and the curricula of American colleges) in the tripartite effort to import the Nouveau Roman into America.
…One can't help but think that [Sontag] hoped to do with Against Interpretation what Barthes had done in Writing Degree Zero — that is, to name and promote a new artistic sensibility, to be the champion of the coming aesthetic dawn. It is significant that, in her obituary for Barthes, Sontag doesn't neglect the opportunity to prove that, even in his opinion, the two were kindred spirits: "'Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle,' were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am."
13. “Dungeons & Dragons: How the company behind the iconic game lost its way” by Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post
Elizabeth Hand reviews Ben Riggs’s Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons (St. Martin’s Press).
…A distribution deal with Random House turned out to be the fatal blow. To keep afloat, TSR had taken out huge loans from the publishing powerhouse. Mass firings took place in the days before Christmas 1996. Bags of unshipped products filled the office. Worst of all, Riggs reports, TSR had used the copyrights of dozens of its works as collateral with the bank and Random House…
14. “How Britain Built an Empire of Fraud” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New Republic
Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Oliver Bullough’s Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World's Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything (St. Martin’s Press).
England today, Bullough proposes, “is like a butler,” a figure who “does not concern himself with the moral character of his clients.” That may be a little unfair to butlers, not such a bad lot in my limited experience, and what Bullough really means is that, beyond financial and legal services, London is also selling the remains of its cultural capital: the deference or obsequiousness of its professional class conferring on their business associates an aura of respectability or patrician glamour. The more apt word for members of this class would be enabler or opportunist: Butler to the World is really a story about the legacy of empire and the sorry state of a country that finds itself acting as a factotum for the international plutocracy.
15. “Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound” by Albert Mobilio, Bookforum
Albert Mobilio reviews Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound (MoMA), edited with text by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi.
One Day in March 1948, a twenty-five-year-old clerk in the French colonial administration in Ivory Coast experienced a transformative vision. He reported that the sky opened and “seven colored suns described a circle of beauty around their ‘Mother-Sun’” and that he was then called upon to be “the Revealer.”
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