The Los Angeles Review of Books | Multimedia Literary and Cultural Arts Magazine
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I’M LUCKY. I work at a bookstore. And this bookstore, like most, is largely populated by cynics and weirdos, a mismatched crew of strange little pirates sailing the seas aboard the SS Fuck Amazon. This one co-worker, he’s originally from El Paso. Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, he played in a thousand bands. One band dressed like sheep, one lied their way onto a Christian public access television show, one crisscrossed the entirety of Texas, the Southwest, the country, the continent. One day, this co-worker hands me a tiny book from a tiny press. Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. “It’s good,” he says. He was right.
Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas is Fernando A. Flores’s first book, a collection of stories set largely in the fictionalized micro-universe that was the Rio Grande Valley punk and art scene of the 1990s. Readers who’ve outlasted their tour through the disaffected halls of any number of punk subcultures will find themselves massaging each bruise, precious as a badge, earned at an all-ages show, a house party, a dubiously legal warehouse. The writing was lyrical and exuded a preternaturally cool charisma. There’s genuine affection in these stories, for the characters, their lives, and the world that surrounds them. In short, the collection announced a new talent, buzzing with all the promise of a three-piece garage band. The fine people at the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation agreed and awarded Flores a grant in order to complete his debut novel, the book that would become Tears of the Trufflepig. Where Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas was hyper-specific, insular, and deeply personal in the way that most first books often are, Tears of the Trufflepig takes all the verve and wit of Death and uses it in the employ of something much more ambitious and much, much stranger.
In film parlance, Trufflepig is something of a two-hander — the tale of two men, winding their way through a labyrinthine conspiracy. Esteban Bellacosa, ostensibly our protagonist, is a laconic repo-man charged with recovering lost construction equipment. Paco Herbert is a Czech journalist tasked with writing a story about black market dinners for the extravagantly wealthy. The two men weave in and out of each other’s plots until the story’s countless themes and curiosities are braided together and it’s nearly impossible to unravel them from each other.
Now, about the plot. Drugs have been made legal, so the cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” animals, bio-engineered exotics brought back from extinction and served at black market dinners for the incredibly rich and extraordinarily vacuous. The death (by filtered ostrich, no less) of El Gordo Pacheco, the leader of the world’s most powerful cartel, has led to a global turf war for control of the filtering syndicates. Australia, Helsinki, Tangiers, New Hampshire: They all want in. Enter Leone McMasters, the silver-mustached head of McM Imports, a shadowy multinational corporation. Think Pynchon’s Golden Fang. Think Monsanto.
Also, there is a thriving black market for the shrunken heads of the Aranaña Indians, a fictional tribe of indigenous people at the heart of Trufflepig’s mystery. Having been vanished for over 400 years, their sudden reappearance portends something. Perhaps it’s doom, but perhaps it’s nothing at all, simply the passing of time. Still, tokens of their existence have led to a Möbius strip of tragedy, “with Indians now killing other Indians for their heads, because they are left out on the margins of the modern world and have few recourses to feed their families.”
Also, 18 colossal Olmec heads have been stolen by thieves, and this, it seems, is the last straw. Protests have broken out all over Mexico: “After years of gruesome violence and widespread fear, it seemed people were finally fed up and unafraid to confront the impunity in the country’s municipal and federal governments, which had gradually been hijacked by the syndicates.”
Also, there is not one but two walls separating the United States from Mexico, with a third on its way. Border Protectors, a specialized military unit, patrols every inch of it. Phantom Recruits, an underground network of spies and “Robin Hoods,” wages a shadow war against the forces of corruption and injustice. In this kind of story, you can expect to find a Border Protector who is secretly a Phantom Recruit, much as you can expect to find a police chief working on behalf of McM Imports.
Against all this, Bellacosa needs to recover the Mano de Chango, a 7900 Rig excavator that went missing from an McM construction site, and Herbert needs to infiltrate a dinner featuring filtered animals, see it for himself, and expose it. Lay it bare. Consequences be damned.
If this all seems like too much, it’s probably because it is. Does the mystery tie together? Every single stitch of it? I’m not entirely sure that it does, but that isn’t the point either.
The plot lines in Trufflepig are funhouse mirrors, reflecting the horrors of both our history and our headlines. The narco plot with cartels generating living, breathing, biological miracles for the sole purpose of exploitation, echoes colonialism’s shadow. The shrunken heads plot, where the heads of the Aranaña are highly sought-after tokens of taste and sophistication, echoes imperialism’s blood.
But it’s the narrative that delights. When so much fiction feels like elegant dioramas, like masterfully crafted ships in bottles, Trufflepig feels organic and amorphous, like some biological organism, shape-shifting its way through the literary landscape, leaving a thin ribbon of goo in its wake. The plot is beside the point. There is a world to be discovered here.
In Trufflepig, Flores takes the well-worn, time-honored tradition of the psychedelic-sci-fi-punk-western-horror-noir and turns it on its ear. The psychological, the spiritual, and the political all intertwine in a cicatrix pattern, one stitch pinning the other into place. Trufflepig is a narcocorrido for the Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s Roberto Bolaño and Gloria Anzaldúa dropping acid and staring into the desert sun. It’s a metaphysical detective story about genocide, corruption, and families. References are layered over top of one another, like concert flyers on a light post. Pomade and pyramids. Caldo de res and the cosmos. Coyotes and the south Texas moon. The language is propulsive the way a jet engine is propulsive, a landspeeder screaming across the desert of today’s headlines, the pilot’s lips flapping in the wind behind him. The images are totemic in nature, and Flores pushes them past their natural breaking point to find something beautiful and unsettling waiting just beyond the other side. A man walks like a spider missing two legs. A pyramid appears beneath the surface of a frozen lake. Nighttime crawls out of the tailpipes of zooming automobiles. Silence stares down like a gargoyle. A pig, with green skin and a pair of wings, is spirited away like a stolen car radio. This is to say that, while Trufflepig is many things, what it is not is a river rock of a novel, a smooth stone polished to perfection by the soft gurgling of peer-review workshops. It is more like the freshly charred husk of a tree, severed sui generis, and still smoking from a lightning strike.
But make no mistake: there is a familiar scaffolding holding the narrative in place. Bellacosa is the classic pulp noir protagonist — right down to the tragic loss of his daughter and wife — who finds his way into a mind-bending conspiracy, with a secondary character, in this case, a journalist, leading him through a very specific vision of Hell. The setting is the US-Mexico border, and Bellacosa, like every noir lead before him, flits easily between the two countries, between the various strata of society, between the levels of class and wealth he encounters. In fact, so much of Trufflepig takes place in this liminal space that the novel would have you believe the border between nations to be as permeable as the border between the flesh and the spirit, between the desert dust of the real world and the deep psychic communion of the subconscious.
But when Bellacosa is brought face-to-face with the titular trufflepig, a hooved-animal, barrel-shaped like a pig, with wings and a beak and green, shimmering skin, he soon realizes that this is no ordinary once-extinct species filtered back into existence. This is Huixtepeltinicopatl, “el cerdo de los sueños,” a spirit animal once worshipped by the Aranaña people, a god. And here’s where things get weird.
To say anymore would be to spoil one of the most thrilling debut novels in recent history. Tears of the Trufflepig is funny and thrilling and tragic. Loose and sometimes unwieldy, yes, but also mesmerizing and ambitious. It might not suit everyone’s tastes, but neither does Galápagos Gumbo. And let’s face it: you’re already seated at the table.
Phil Maciak asks why Big Little Lies is so unwilling to follow the money in “The End of the World,” the third episode of its second season. There are spoilers below, but, be aware that Phil doesn’t say anything about the climate change stuff in this episode. There was once a time when he was optimistic about a Sunday-night HBO drama series taking climate change seriously as a subject, but that turned out to be a big sham, and he looks like a real dupe for ever believing in it. So he’s not going to talk about climate change here. Not today.
This week, Bernie Sanders released a plan for cancelling student loan debt, which comes on the heels of Elizabeth Warren’s own student loan forgiveness plan, which comes on the heels of a college admissions scandal featuring Aunt Becky and other wealthy California families buying their children’s way into college, which comes on the heels of, you know, the crippling student loan problem in America. Meanwhile, on Big Little Lies, Madeline’s daughter just wants to skip college to work at a for-profit homelessness prevention start-up.
Democratic politics in this country is moving further to the left—trying to, at least—and a big part of that move is the decision to put economic inequality at the center of the discussion. Not quite so for the Monterey Five. Income inequality has always been an enabling factor of Big Little Lies—the fact that Otter Bay is a public school is the show’s first joke—but it has rarely been more than that. The show’s events are impossible to imagine without structural inequality, but we are meant to infer rather than investigate the available critiques of these rich and (often) bad people. This show is sometimes funny, but it’s neither a comedy nor a satire. The thing about the homelessness start-up is a bitter joke; money, when it gets mentioned or when it gets noticed, is almost always a joke. Big Little Lies is much more comfortable teasing the rich than eating them, taking the extravagance of this setting jokingly but rarely seriously. So it’s been frustrating, this season, to see a show with such potential relevance to the economic life of the U.S. in 2019 dodge that relevance at every turn.
Money is more of a metaphor than a subject for Big Little Lies. Despite Andrea Arnold’s involvement, and despite the constant visibility of wealth, it’s a marginal narrative concern for the show. That doesn’t mean the show is uncritical about it. The vulgar wealth that literally enables the series, and against which Jane is contrasted in the first season, isn’t viewed kindly. Every domestic interior, whether the blinding whiteness of Madeline’s kitchen, the cutting glass of Celeste’s view, the perilous height of Renata’s house, or even the haunting, wooded isolation of Bonnie’s outdoor space, is a place of beauty and danger equally. But the money that pays for these things, and that they in turn signify, is rarely itself seen as part of the danger. We aren’t supposed to blithely accept the virtuous wealth of these one-percenters, but neither are we supposed to too closely consider it. The wealth that undergirds much of the violence, irresponsibility, entitlement, vanity, and suffocating social disease is secondary, most of the time, to the violence, irresponsibility, entitlement, vanity, and social disease. Now that Jane is a part of the Monterey Five, her class position is less interesting to the show’s writers. And the references we have to it so far this season—in the form of her rejection of Celeste’s offer of child support—again seem to be the means by which the show can pivot to what it sees as its more central subjects: family, recovery, community, life after trauma. Money means more in the symbolic economy of this show than it does in the actual economy.
These are good and valuable things for the show to be about, obviously. Two weeks ago, I praised the show for its willingness to zero in on exactly those subjects, to dig deeper rather than spread out or run it back. But, as Jane said last week, these episodes show us a show that is spreading out, or rather, spreading thin. Rather than focus on interiority, the show is building networks of the gaze, structuring itself around the watchers and the watched. Of course, a show structured in that way needn’t overlook financial concerns—“follow the money” was essentially the catchphrase of The Wire, the twenty-first century’s best piece of art about economic injustice and surveillance both—but Big Little Lies does. In retaining its investment in the murder mystery of it all, the thin vestiges of remaining plot turbo-charged by Detective Meryl Streep’s sudden appearance, the show frees itself from the obligation to look at these characters beyond What They Did Last Summer. Lost in this is an exploration of Bonnie’s consciousness that isn’t an explanatory revelation of her hidden past, and lost in this too is an examination of what’s really rotten in the state of California.
I’m not forgetting about Renata and her memes, though. I’m as thrilled as anybody that Laura Dern is rising in these episodes. And I’m extra-thrilled that her plotline is focusing in on money and corruption. But I also fear that the vague yet inarguable and catastrophic financial crimes of Renata’s husband are a kind of easy out for Big Little Lies. The money’s unavoidable; Kelley and Moriarty know that. So they’re talking about it, but they’re doing so by scapegoating, or at least picking off the easiest mark. Rather than having the show really think through the corrosive effect of all this wealth on everybody, including the characters we like, and including the characters whose positions seem less defined by performative spending, we are instead focusing in on the easily indictable crimes of an unlikable felon and the venal, if operatic, reaction of his wife. (It’s worth noting, of course, that Laura Dern is doing extraordinarily fun and surprisingly textured work, given how many of her lines seem written to be yelled at full volume. Her performance is a separate issue from what she’s being asked to perform.) Renata’s howling rage about her own financial insecurity can thus easily play as personal psychosis rather than contagious illness. What if Adam Scott’s Ed had lost all of his and Madeline’s money? What if Perry’s will hadn’t provided for his family? What if the show had introduced financial instability through the medium of any of its many characters who have not so far been narratively defined by overreaction and hyperbole?
Whether it’s disinterest or timidity, the show seems unwilling to say—outside of a kind of friendly smirk or eye-roll—that this sort of wealth is a problem if it isn’t a federal crime. Even as we are now meant to perceive Renata as an ally rather than an enemy to our protagonists, giving her this plotline only further siloes whatever critique the show has planned off to the side. In three episodes, the show has had an awkward time establishing the outlines of a real-seeming friendship between Renata and Celeste-Madeline-Jane—the first season’s clique—and that only makes matters worse. Dern’s narrative isolation and spectacular vanity can allow the show to conceive of a universe in which the dilemma of all this cash is isolated to bad actors, not a bad system.
Again, though, the show’s not uncritical about money, nor is it even wholly uninterested. But, so far, a lot of what we get is both subtle enough to be missed and a credit to Andrea Arnold’s light but definite touch with the material. I was particularly struck by Madeline’s Buick. There are two conversation scenes between Madeline and Celeste this week that occur in the driver and passenger’s seats of her Buick SUV. Sure, there’s some product placement going on, but Arnold makes sure to de-glamorize, even uglify and anonymize the interior. Both reverse shots here emphatically sink the women in their bucket seats, framing them with bland, featureless leather and an embroidered “AIRBAG” label.
These are shots that emphasize the “utility” of these sports utility vehicles, but they also aggressively resist any kind of commodity fetishism or even beauty. This object crowds the frame, suffocates its inhabitants, but it holds no aesthetic value for us as viewers. (The establishing shot is likewise distant enough that we can’t even see the logo of the car.) And all of this is punctuated by the final shot of the sequence: a two-shot of Madeline and Celeste holding hands beneath the dashboard and its blank screen.
The kitchens and the verandas might carry the germ of a critique within them, but they remain beautiful to behold; this scene, instead, is set within the gutless interior of performed wealth. This scene, to me, is the sort of nuanced, visually meaningful exploration of money that contrasts with the blunt disposability of, say, Gordon’s lavish toy train set. In other words, the show is writing checks aesthetically that its narrative can’t (or won’t) cash.
Not every television series in the year of our lord 2019 needs to be about income inequality, and not every series about money needs to be as grandiose in its representation of corruption as, say, Billions or Succession. Those shows focus on power brokers and stock brokers, easy targets those shows run unsparingly through the meat grinder. They allow us to take some pleasure in the earthly delights that Bobby Axelrod or Tom Wambsgans enjoy, but they are always relentlessly clear about who the bad guys are, and that those bad guys are everybody. Big Little Lies is a different show, often a very good one, and given the delicacy and importance of its preferred subjects, it’s ultimately good that everyone on this show isn’t presented as a mustache-twirling villain. But, especially with Andrea Arnold behind the camera now, it seemed that we had an opportunity to talk about the piles of money lying around everywhere and what they mean. There’s time still with Renata’s pending bankruptcy, with Jane’s growing set of relationships with other working-class millennials, even with the currently rejected but still dangling strings attached to offers of child support for Ziggy, time for the show to follow the money. Arnold’s already looking at it; somebody just needs to say something.
LOS ANGELES’S FIRST COOKBOOKS were published in the late 1800s, when the valley was covered in wheat and citrus farms, and vineyards still stretched across downtown. Compiled by local church groups, partially for pride and mostly for fundraising, these books lauded the perennial sunshine, allowing homesteaders to dry raisins, brine olives, grow berries, and make jam. Seeing Southern California as something of a melting pot, they culled recipes from Spanish, German, French, and Russian sources (“a thing unusual,” one preface proclaimed). Even then, dining was theater. You can see it in the effusive tips for decorating tables with orchids, ribbons, and delicate crepe butterflies, or the nostalgic essays about the old-time hospitality enjoyed in cities back east. There’s an earnestness to these notes, as if the authors needed to convince themselves of their European decorum in what was still a frontier town.
It wasn’t until 1971 that we got The L.A. Gourmet, a published compilation of Angeleno restaurant recipes, and since then, we haven’t looked back. The popularity of the city’s cooking, claimed The Los Angeles Times California Cookbook (1981), was a natural extension of its carefree, sun-soaked, wellness-obsessed lifestyle; just think of all the Angeleno-born salads — Cobb, stuffed avocado, alfalfa ’n’ sunflower seed — that went viral. “Skillful sautés, crisp, colorful stir-fries, and perfect mixed grills smoldering over Southwestern mesquite” typified the cosmopolitan Angeleno chef, claimed the authors of LA Cuisine: The New Culinary Spirit (1985). Still, the majority of cookbooks about renowned Los Angeles restaurants had little to say about their own city. The Spago and Patina cookbooks celebrated the genius of their respective European-born chefs; the only mentions of Los Angeles in The Food of Campanile: Recipes from the Famed Los Angeles Restaurant (1997) boil down to a few words on the weather.
Around the same time that gourmet food trucks during the late aughts began to tweet their locations from far-flung strip malls and parking lots, a number of cookbook writers began to talk about Los Angeles differently, abandoning truisms about wellness and cocktail spreads in favor of candid tales of self-making and reinvention. You heard less about assimilation and more about wedding imported traditions to the sunny and sprawling new digs. “The result was a Thai guy doing an impression of the beef salad you’d find at most American Thai restaurants, but filtered through the lens of the LA summer backyard barbecue,” Kris Yenbamroong observes of himself in Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends (2017). Inspiration came from sources high and low, processed and homemade, corporate chains and mom-and-pops, ice cream trucks, taco stands, burger joints, and c-stores. The youthful food memories described in Roy Choi’s L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (2013) span Chinatown bakeries, the Cheesecake Factory, and carne asada grilled in the park. The Grand Central Market Cookbook: Cuisine and Culture from Downtown Los Angeles (2017) celebrates the historic market as a multicultural and multigenerational microcosm of the city: “[A] rare public venue where Angelenos climb out of their cars and literally rub shoulders.”
The Los Angeles portrayed in today’s cookbooks is swollen with creative vitality. It pulses through the scrappy jam operation that launched a nationwide mania for Kokuho Rose crispy rice salads, and the rogue food stand started with $167 and no permit that transformed LA’s gourmet taco scene. “In Los Angeles, no door is ever closed,” claims Victor Garnier Astorino, the (French) author of Los Angeles Cult Recipes (2017): “Once you throw yourself (or lose yourself) in something that makes you happy, people don’t judge you, whatever it is.” Nowhere else might a chef take a chance on a dilapidated building on the edge of Skid Row, or a used-needle-and-condom-strewn alley so devoid of foot traffic that only a fool would open a restaurant there. “Let’s retire those old L.A. jabs about new-age cafes serving alfalfa and plates of mashed yeast,” Alison Clare Steingold, a self-styled “lifestyle editor,” wrote in the introduction to The L.A. Cookbook (2018): “Los Angeles has arrived.”
No one tells the story of Los Angeles’s great culinary awakening with more verve than Aleksandra Crapanzano. EAT. COOK. L.A.: Notes and Recipes from the City of Angels (2019) surveys the restaurants, cafés, ice creameries, and coffee shops that represent the zeitgeist of the new, culturally ambitious Los Angeles. Culling 100 recipes from our hottest eateries (from Kismet to Petit Trois, Moon Juice to Guerrilla Tacos), accompanied by snappy profiles of the city’s hottest chefs (Nancy Silverton and Suzanne Goin, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo), Crapanzano attempts to capture the “culinary stardust” with which the city now seems to sparkle.
After all, she tells us, Angeleno food wasn’t always worth writing about. Until quite recently, the city suffered from “a bad case of culinary insecurity.” People went to restaurants not so much to eat well as for the magnificent stage sets against which to strut and hustle. Then the 2008 recession hit, and everything changed. Internet startups decentralized the restaurant-scape. Farmers markets became de rigueur. And juicing — juicing! — “fired up long dormant or virginal taste buds with hits of fiery ginger, floral turmeric root, red hot cayenne pepper, energizing green jalapeño, stimulating cardamom, woody nutmeg, and flirtatious pink peppercorns.” A door opened, evidently. A new kind of Angeleno cooking was born.
If you can’t tell, I’m skeptical. The Hollywood Farmers’ Market has been thriving since 1991. The Santa Monica Farmers Market began a decade earlier. From 2007 to 2012, farmers market revenues actually dropped in Southern California — local food didn’t escape the recession. Likewise, restaurants have always been places to see and strut: Can we really assume that everyone who shells out the money for dinner at Urasawa or Providence isn’t doing so for the social capital? And if Los Angeles has been spawning new health fads since the 1930s, why was juicing the trigger? Los Angeles’s love affair with juicing got started in the ’70s, but we universalize our own addictions, I guess.
But I digress; let’s keep rolling with Crapanzano’s story. Gluten phobia spawned grain bowls and a predilection for hummus. Construction of museums and galleries primed our faculties of taste. (She tries very hard to convince us of the synergies between aesthetic and gustatory appreciation, which I’d have an easier time buying without having endured so many team meals at Marie Callender’s at my old museum job.) Before you knew it, “[g]ood restaurants, really good restaurants, seemed literally to pop up across L.A. as if armies of underground chefs were tunneling under the canyons and tar pits, the freeways and valleys.” Contrary to white tablecloth getups like Musso and Frank, “[y]ou could show up at their doors in flip-flops, laptop in hand, and eat beautiful, healthy food in a casual sunny space.” It wasn’t long before Crapanzano started hearing an inimitable “hungry chatter” at all her favorite places: “[A]n appetite for culinary pleasure and satisfaction […] that triggers desire, longing, and a determination to re-create the contours of such inexpressible joy.” Not exactly the words I’d use to describe the line at Howlin’ Rays.
The compendium of quintessential Angeleno recipes is nothing new; we’ve been publishing them for decades. Back then, that meant creamed spinach from Lawry’s, chopped salad from La Scala, and scampi imperial from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Today, it means turmeric grilled sea bass from Cassia, charred cucumber gazpacho from Charcoal, and Gjelina’s carrot top pistou. Many of her recipes have a Middle Eastern spin, like cucumber salad with rose labneh and za’atar (Kismet), beet muhammara (Botanica), pomegranate couscous (Manhattan Beach Post), and hummus “bling bling” (Mh Zh), even if we never hear about restaurants in Middle Eastern neighborhoods such as Glendale or Tehrangeles. It only took minutes, however, to recreate the avocado hummus from the “eclectic New American” Studio City restaurant The Bellwether, topped with a lemony crown of coarsely chopped parsley, spangled with sumac and toasted sesame seeds. Tangy, nutritious, and effortlessly uncomplicated, I get why she calls it “the taste of Los Angeles today.”
Yes, that carrot top pistou — brightened with toasted coriander, orange zest, salty pecorino, and toasted pepitas — was dazzling. Yes, the meyer lemon–olive oil ice cream was custardy and tart. Crapanzano’s recipes, with lashings of this and lavishings of that, and names like “love sauce” and “morning sex,” feel a little like living in a suspended state of tantric euphoria that wouldn’t feel off-brand for Goop. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. How many cocktails have I rationalized because they had saffron in them? How many organic grain bowls have I consumed in the retinoid glow of a MacBook Pro?
Still, there’s something vaguely off-putting about this book. It’s a little too triumphant, a little too glib, and a little too exultant of the fragrant herbs and the tender pea shoots and the delightfully sun-dappled tables. Maybe it’s because her tale of Los Angeles’s culinary rise is seen through a klieg light gel (her book begins by recalling being “wined and dined” by a powerful Hollywood agent). Maybe it’s because she’s a New Yorker and I grew up here. Maybe because she’s an uber-connected insider (her mother is Jane Kramer, The New Yorker’s longtime European correspondent) and her lilting and sensuous prose sometimes comes off as a little tone-deaf. “Who really needs groceries when [chef Josef Centeno of Orsa & Winston] now has most every hankering covered?” she asks.
Cookbooks have always sold us fantasies tricked out as self-help — a glimpse of a royal larder, a dish from a special banquet, a tip from a domestic goddess who seems to have it all. EAT. COOK. L.A. is of that ilk. It’s an alluring portrait of how we’d like to eat if we were always on vacation, where languid weekday breakfasts pour into the early afternoon, and “a plate of crudo at midnight sounds like just the thing.” This is cuisine for the leisure class. The “hungry chatter” that enchants her is that of a well heeled and moneyed crowd: the kind that buys charcoal-activated doodads and Moon Juice beauty dusts before lapping up Eater heatmaps and snarky reviews on The Infatuation. Few of the restaurants in her book are over 10 years old (Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, which opened in 1983, is the most geriatric inclusion). Her haunts cluster around the Westside, Hollywood, Silver Lake, and the Arts District, with nods to Pasadena (ice cream!) and Studio City. What’s missing (save for La Casita Mexicana, the lone outlier in Bell) are the restaurants supposedly “beyond the studios”: the dumpling houses in San Gabriel, the barbecue joints in Koreatown, the mercados and taquerias dotting City Terrace and Boyle Heights, the Armenian food shops stretching along Washington Boulevard against the San Gabriel mountains; in short, places that have been around long before L.A. restaurants started scooping up James Beard Awards and the Michelin Guide — for better or worse — decided to come back.
To Crapanzano’s credit, she does acknowledge the omission. “But that’s another story,” she confesses, “and not the one I’m writing.” Luckily, Elisa Callow’s The Urban Forager: Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.’s Eastside fills that gap.
Callow, the founder and former executive director of an arts education nonprofit in Pasadena, draws from a patchwork of experiences: teenage memories of wandering Malaysian market stalls during her father’s tour in the Peace Corps, Armenian dives in East Hollywood, and poking into tortillerias and butchers to watch the shopkeepers do their work. The foods she found there weren’t exactly “wild,” but their novelty was enlivening (urban exploring and primordial gathering, both requiring curiosity and resourcefulness, may not be as different as we think). There’s something deeply satisfying about expanding our search for provisions beyond the one-stop shopping center. There’s a lot right under our noses if we take the time to look. But it was only later, Callow acknowledges in her blog promoting the book, “that I realized my near compulsion to stop, sniff, taste and ask — what is this, what is it for, how do you use it — could be described as Urban Foraging.”
It’s not the kind of foraging that helps you find horehound and chickweed in the cracks between sidewalks, or lemons and figs from your neighbor’s trees. Callow’s book addresses the average person wandering aisles lined with heaping buckets of unfamiliar ingredients belonging to a culture distant from one’s own. To forage, for her, is to navigate the city with the eager curiosity of a child. Pull over somewhere unexpected. Ask for some help. Tinker with ingredients. Eventually become a regular.
The Urban Forager began as a guide to Callow’s favorite haunts in Altadena that she created for her kids. Before long, her wanderings bled into the scattered patchwork of neighborhoods extending toward Arcadia in the east, Hollywood in the west, and Arlington Heights in the south. Hence the subtitle: “Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.’s Eastside.” This might raise some eyebrows, since few people agree where the eastside actually is. Historically speaking, it lies east of the Los Angeles River. The Eastsider, a local news blog, covers Silver Lake, Glendale, Eagle Rock, and Highland Park. Some sources include Koreatown. I’ve come to think of the eastside as a “vibe” or a figure of speech, having less to do with any definitive geographical boundary rather than simply not being on the westside, with its higher rents, better weather, cultural homogeneity, and closeness to the beach — a point that film producer Lynda Obst illustrates in her foreword to Jessica Koslow’s 2016 Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking. Sqirl, Obst maintains, “retains the things we east-siders love about the east side: Funkiness, a downtown NYC urban decay mixed with haute cuisine you don’t have to dress for.”
Callow’s eastside couldn’t look more different. Unlike Crapanzano’s recipes, which are drawn solely from restaurants, Callow crowdsources recipes from her personal life as well as five culinary collaborators enlisted to help unpack these far-flung enclaves. Best known of them is Minh Phan, Los Angeles’s Vietnamese-born, Wisconsin-bred porridge maven; Jonathan Gold once lauded her spin on the dish — laced with aromatics, chile, and lacto-fermented mustard greens — “as dazzling in its complexity as anything coming out of the most famous kitchens in town.” Second best known is Sumi Chang, the baker behind Pasadena’s beloved neighborhood institution Euro Pane, where Gold used to enjoy a coffee and croissant. The other three are home cooks with day jobs outside the culinary world: Jack Aghoian, a child of Armenian refugees with deep ties to Syria and Cuba; Rumi Mahmood, a Bangladeshi native with a man crush on Jacques Pépin; and Mario Rodriguez, a Boyle Heights–based social worker with roots in rural Mexico and the American Southwest.
Little wonder that the recipes in The Urban Forager are all over the map. You have the very basic (boiling pasta, poaching eggs), the more involved (pozole, fresh tortellini), pantry items (jam, pickles), family favorites (shrimp dopiaza, madzooneh shorba — a delightfully simple Armenian yogurt soup from a now-defunct restaurant owned by one of her collaborators), desserts (lemon squares, polvorones), and copious tips for using leftovers (“refrigerator foraging,” in Callow’s words).
Her book doesn’t align with stereotypical notions of Southern California dining, for good reason. “California cuisine,” as chef and writer Joyce Goldstein once argued, was invented in restaurants and not in private homes. Callow’s recipes, frequently credited to their sources — “Mario’s Queso Fundido,” “Peggy’s Pavlova,” “Aunt Mini’s Butter Cookies,” and “Pâté Maison in Memory of my Dad” — give The Urban Forager a sentimental quality more reminiscent of spiral-bound church cookbooks and tea-stained notecards stuffed in recipe boxes than the glossy, full-bleed, uber-designed volumes in bookstores today. That’s exactly the point. It showcases the heterogeneity of these neighborhoods while reflecting the ways that most home cooks actually cook. Most of us don’t specialize in one kind of cuisine. Our recipes come from dozens of sources: websites, cookbooks, friends, spouses, and co-workers. We swap ingredients and make adjustments. Nothing is too precious to be tinkered with.
The Urban Forager cookbook feels worlds apart from EAT. COOK. L.A. even though the two authors describe the same city, many of the same neighborhoods, and often the same dishes (meatballs, pavlova, queso fundido, roast chicken). That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Los Angeles is a large and inscrutable place. “We live our lives in parallel with few intersections,” recently wrote Frank Shyong in his column for the Los Angeles Times, “each of us experiencing a different city with its own culinary hallmarks.”
But different sources yield different explanations of Los Angeles’s rise as a Great Food City. When you cherry-pick the young and trendy restaurants, as Crapanzano does, you end up with a played-out story: Angeleno food once was bad but now is good thanks to creative chefs, discerning consumers, and the so-called cultural renaissance. But when you focus on small legacy grocers like Los Cinco Puntos in Boyle Heights or the Armenian-owned Aladdin Nuthouse in Pasadena, as Callow does, you start to realize that Los Angeles has always been a food city, even if mainstream audiences, for racism or whatever reason, didn’t pay attention.
The latter narrative feels more comfortable, but I still feel a little torn. Cookbooks, historically, have been designed to instruct and inspire. Who am I to fixate on the stage and background lighting rather than the merits of the recipes? After all, I greatly enjoyed the dishes in Crapanzano’s book. Her acids are bright. Her spices are vivid. Her abundance of creative toppings — fresh mint and feta, sprinkles of dried rose petals, a dollop of salsa verde or a shimmer of romesco sauce — give the recipes a clearer and more contemporary point of view than those in The Urban Forager.
But to use The Urban Forager solely as a recipe manual deflates Callow’s intention. Urban foraging, I’ve come to realize, is a venture in community building: compelling us to surrender to the unfamiliar and start talking to strangers. It can take a little courage, but within the discomfort, we forge new connections. “My puzzled face becomes an invitation for acts of kindness and welcome in the stores I enter,” Callow writes. “Without fail, I am approached by a variation on the nonna/grandma/bà nội, whose knowledge of a particular cuisine is as deep as her desire to teach.”
It’s this vulnerability that draws me to The Urban Forager. “Before I remarried, money was scarce, but that didn’t stop my daughter, Nori, and me from enjoying our meals,” Callow tells us, introducing a recipe for roasted turkey breast with fennel. The dish is disarmingly simple, requiring very little technique. But in just a few words, Callow captures the rituality that gives cooking its anthropological power. Endlessly divisible, the dish stirred deep and primal kinship bonds. It marked and concretized a moment in time. It metamorphosed into a dozen forms of sustenance that lasted an entire week: a Waldorf salad, enchiladas, quesadillas, and sandwiches prepared for lunch.
In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen pointed out the irony of dissecting movies for their supposed “documentary revelations.” Get too bogged down in the landscape and the architecture, and then you aren’t really watching the movie. You could say the same of cookbooks. Aren’t they here to inspire us? To help get dinner on the table? To envision a lifestyle we’d like to lead? Yet localized cookbooks do have an impact on the cities that they seek to represent. They can sway who goes out of business and who rolls out three more locations. They affect where people travel and how they spend their money — all the more important given Los Angeles’s rash of hotel construction and the Olympics looming on the horizon.
Every cookbook about Los Angeles has its own telos, but they ultimately fall into two camps. There’s the culinary bildungsroman — scrappy tales of dreamers who rise from humble beginnings to march by the beat of their own drum. And then there are the ones that provide jasmine-scented possibilities of what that the L.A. lifestyle can look like, if you can put aside the rising rents, the squeeze on older communities, and the growing number of signs for grocers and restaurants that have long since shut their doors. Those things should matter more; they’re part of our prandial history. But they’re less romantic, less sensuous, and less transportive than the fragrant herbs, the cooling breezes, and the fragile sun-ripened fruit.
“FOR THE PERFECT flâneur,” Baudelaire writes in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,”
it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite […] To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.
Perhaps that’s the central difference between the flâneur and the flâneuse, a literary and historical figure that has been circulating a lot in popular culture since the publication of Lauren Elkin’s 2017 study of female wanderers, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. From the largest metropolis to the most rural outpost, municipal architecture is part of an infrastructure designed to exclude women from power: cities aren’t built for women. Statues and street names honor presidents and generals in cities where women can’t safely walk alone at night. We are always a little out of place, never fully citizens of anywhere.
In Ayşegül Savaş’s lyrical debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, all the characters seem defined by their relationship to the city and the way in which they move through it. For the narrator, Nunu, and her mother, Nejla, this movement is explicitly gendered. Growing up in an industrial Turkish town, Nejla wished to become a man, as she later recounts to her daughter, and imagined the freedom of mobility that she would enjoy. She could be just like Akif amca, her trusted family friend, who “could take his walking stick and leave, without having to account for his departure.” Instead, she settled into the roles expected of her: she married a failed poet and had a child. As an adult in Istanbul, Nejla sticks to habitual paths, making routine stops at the same restaurants and shops every day and never wandering too far from her own neighborhood.
In her own childhood, Nunu feels trapped by these patterns and her increasingly tense relationship with her mother. To cope, she constructs a model city — complete with benches, lampposts, and townspeople — out of scraps of old newspaper. Savaş writes: “The city twisted and turned around itself, with courtyards and dead ends that I alone could see from my godly vantage point but that were invisible to the people walking its streets.”
When her adolescent life feels out of control, the paper city gives Nunu dominion over space and time. Within this fantasy world, she lives in a walled-off garden at a safe distance from prying relatives. In a secret cabin nearby, her father, who committed suicide several years earlier, is still alive, unknown to everyone but her.
As an adult, Nunu seems to enjoy much of the freedom and autonomy that her mother never gained. In flashes, both forward and backward, Savaş weaves together the threads of Nunu’s life: her childhood in Turkey before her father’s death and the hushed tones afterward; her university years in London with her friend Molly and her boyfriend, Luke; and her time in Paris after Nejla’s death. She manages to escape the neighborhood where she grew up, but even in the most cosmopolitan of cities, Nunu is always something of an outsider. She either watches people from a distance or embellishes her life story to impress teachers and friends. It’s as though she’s constantly trying to recreate the paper city of her youth by watching from a “godly vantage point” and manipulating those around her. Still, Nunu remains likable, even strangely relatable, which is a testament to Savaş’s skill as a writer. She taps into the reader’s deep-seated desire just to be liked, to have the respect of those whom they admire.
It’s in Paris that Nunu initially seems at her most vulnerable. Still grieving the loss of her mother, she moves to the city on a student visa — though she never attends class. When invited to social functions, she avoids other students because she doesn’t know how to navigate group dynamics. Relegated to the margins of Parisian life, Nunu roams the labyrinthine streets of her neighborhood with no social connection or purpose.
By chance, she sees a notice for a public reading by one of her favorite writers, whose identity throughout the book is truncated to a solitary “M.” She has read and reread his poetic novels set in Istanbul in part because they’re written from an outsider’s uncomplicated and superficial perspective: “[W]here insight was spared, where tragedy occurred in parentheses, and moments of great joy were subdued.” The two become unlikely but instant friends. As in her previous relationships, however, Nunu keeps some things hidden. She never tells M. that she has read his novels, and almost everything she does tell him is a lie. In an effort to impress him, she passes herself off as a fellow writer and is surprised by how easily he takes her into his confidence: “I was grateful to him for including me so swiftly into his community of writers, and all the sensitivities of his profession of which I was mostly unaware.”
M. becomes her companion and interlocutor on their shared wanderings of cafés and boulevards, and she delves further into the city than she’s ever dared to go alone. Their relationship has drawn comparisons to those in other recent novels, such as Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not for the nature of their connection, which is never sexual or problematic, but because their conversations frequently turn to what it means to be a writer. Nunu recalls, “‘Sometimes,’ M. wrote to me, ‘I can barely tell apart my sorrow from my joy when I’m writing.’ Immediately, I recognized the statement as a truth.”
She recognizes the pain and pleasure of creating worlds and controlling events because it’s so similar to her own experience of obsessively building and rebuilding the paper city. And Savaş makes this comparison explicit when she describes the way M. constructs his fiction: “[He] named streets one by one in his novels, listed trees, shops, and foods, building an entire world with the patience of a miniaturist.”
Of course, this is also Savaş’s writing style, and, by extension, Nunu’s way of narrating the past. Her walks with M. are cartographic in detail. Savaş writes, “We crossed the bridge to the island, mostly empty except for a few tourists in front of an ice-cream shop, then the Pont de la Tournelle to the Left Bank, standing for a moment to look at Notre-Dame glowing with a strange light through the mist.”
Readers who have been to Paris may recognize the famous Berthillon ice cream shop, and they will certainly know the glow of Notre-Dame at night. (In the aftermath of the devastating fire, Savaş’s frequent references to the cathedral take on another, albeit unintentional, layer of loss in a novel heavily marked by grief.) In fact, Nunu’s walks with M. are so detailed that readers could follow the directions like a roadmap. Savaş, who grew up in Turkey and Denmark and now teaches at the Sorbonne, describes neighborhoods, street names, cafés, gardens, and all the minutiae of Paris with the intimate meticulousness of someone who has spent a good deal of time walking those paths herself, though, in the same way that M. describes Istanbul, her keen observations are colored by being a temporary resident.
The geographic specificity lends a sense of realism to a novel that’s largely about artifice, but readers shouldn’t necessarily expect realism from Savaş. Instead, Walking on the Ceiling seems to owe much to Mrs. Dalloway, another novel whose fluid chronology favors form over plot. In Woolf’s novel, the characters push against the boundaries of their secluded urban lives. Elizabeth Dalloway rides the omnibus further down the Strand than she’s ever ventured before, and even Clarissa, in a moment of defiance, decides to buy the flowers herself while exploring the streets of Westminster. The novels share a similar pacing and an eye for seemingly inconsequential details while important events succumb to a general fogginess. Even Nunu’s relationship with M. is left largely undefined. Like Woolf, Savaş focuses more on interiority, and the novel’s modernist sensibility fits Nunu’s flânerie perfectly.
As with any novel about writers, it is almost impossible to ignore the meta-narrative about writing or resist the urge to conflate author and character. If Nunu is an unreliable narrator, then of course so is Savaş, who draws us into a story that we can never quite believe but always implicitly trust. With godly precision, she has constructed a paper city out of the pages of her novel, and we happily follow her toward every courtyard and dead end.
I CAN’T BE the only political scientist ranting about how Woodrow Wilson would be turning in his grave 101 years on from his 14 Points speech. No doubt the 28th president of the United States had his faults, as seen in the campus protests aspiring to remove his name and bust from college campuses because of his racist actions. But you would be hard-pressed to find someone in international relations or political economy that wouldn’t want to see his legacy at least partially preserved because of his foreign policy vision.
Wilson proposed the League of Nations (what became the United Nations) to observe and uphold peace agreements, and sought to promote international trade so as to create interdependence between nation-states. He reasoned that if our fates are bound up with each other’s economically, we are less likely to fight.
Nobody argues today that benefits of globalization have been evenly spread. But the modern nationalist corrective to Wilson — Donald Trump and his “America First” — is even worse.
The new book Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism by Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen has a lofty title. The book is an effort to prescribe corrections in foreign policy and the failures of domestic democratic processes. The “perceived loss of control over one’s destiny” for the average citizen in a Wilsonian world is marked by the coronation of Trump and his populist counterparts elsewhere.
Gardels and Berggruen frame the “trials of the West” as a function of two dynamics: social media and something they call “digital capitalism.”
Thanks to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, “there is more participation than ever before,” but this engagement has come in the form of problematic information silos and propagated misinformation, which has fragmented “mass society into diverse tribes.” The splintered public goes on to make bad choices. To deal with the fake news bots and echo chambers, the authors essentially suggest that Mark Zuckerberg et al should work against their own profit motives. So as to create more accountability on media sharing platforms, these mechanisms might need to be regulated by a government.
“Digital capitalism” is a tad fresher. This is not an agreed-upon or even regularly used term, and I was eager to see how the authors operationalized it. I thought it might mean the digitization of finance, which is by far the largest share of the global economy and has proved crisis prone time and again. But the authors want us to focus on the rapidly growing gig economy elements of the tech industry: businesses like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. Advances in these domains are surely already disenfranchising millions of American workers.
The authors promise a vision to renovate democratic institutions and even out the tilting economy. No doubt we need an imaginative vision of the future, as in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s admonition that, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood […] but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Gardels and Berggruen did not show us the sea, but instead a set of tame prescriptions.
The authors share James Madison’s “Federalist No. 10” (1787) concerns with direct democracy: the voting population is too susceptible to brute passion for its own good. The argument is the basis for representative democracy. The authors extend the “Founding Fathers” republican arguments to protect against the social-media-fueled “dumb mob” (a phrase used often). Is it even empirically true that people are dumber than they were in the late 18th century? Perhaps I have too rosy a view of the capacity of people to learn about their choices. Instead, the authors suggest new methods of replacing the power of citizens.
Gardels and Berggruen reckon with populism and special interests (wealthy advocates of referendum ballot measures) gaining too much voice by zooming in on California. “[N]ever has the need been greater for countervailing practices and institutions to establish facts, deliberate wise choices, mediate fair trade-offs, and forge consensus that can sustain long-term implementation of policies.” The authors propose a series of technical changes, like fewer constituents per representative and harnessing the internet for public feedback to government.
Their biggest dream of reining California’s unhinged direct democracy in is with a new Senate model that has appointed positions. They offer “city manager” municipal charters and the Canadian Parliament as examples. Never mind that they themselves note how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now going back to the public for feedback, as many of the Canadian appointees are viewed as patronage jobs.
Is the problem really “one person, one vote”? “Federalist No. 10” argues that the “first object of government” was to protect individuals’ rights to accrue property. And as Arthur MacEwan has noted, the Constitution of the United States was designed to limit threats to the propertied classes — to maintain factions who could not coalesce against the wealthy. Scholars as far back as Charles A. Beard in 1913 have suggested that the Constitution was drawn so as to protect the Founders’ own wealth.
The authors generally characterize the aspired Senate appointees as disinterested parties with expertise. But they want to link “ideas of direct democracy and delegation of authority to knowledgeable nonpartisan elites.” I stared at that word “elite” for a while. Readers might consider the appointments of Betsy DeVos, Andrew R. Wheeler, Wilbur Ross, and other institutional elites as they consider this handoff.
Digital capitalism “is divorcing productivity and wealth creation from employment and income,” they write, but these divorces were described as early as 1821 by the economist David Ricardo. Indeed, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels quipped over 100 years ago that if productivity and wealth had gone hand in hand, capitalists “ought long ago to have gone to the dogs […] for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.”
It is commendable that the authors seek to analyze what “knowledge-driven economy” technologies mean for the already deep chasm between the classes with ownership and those with little more than their labor power. This section of the book boasts the title “Redrawing the Social Contract” and is consistent with the Democratic Party ethos. They call for a more “robust” and “redefined safety net and opportunity web” to cope. The authors propose a “flexicurity” safety net for the disadvantaged. They also endorse universal basic income — an exciting prospect whose advocates span the political spectrum. Their twist is that it be funded “pre-distribution” rather than redistribution through taxes: essentially, a public share of equity in new firms.
The global section of Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism focuses almost entirely on the future of United States–China relations because, as they write, when “populists rail against globalization that has undermined their standard of living through trade agreements, they mostly have China in mind.”
The authors had meetings with President Xi Jinping and other ranking Chinese officials. The chapter plays to arguments laid out earlier in the book regarding the need for continuity in governance, and seems to be an attempt to warm readers who wince at Chinese relations because of communism. Gardels and Berggruen were right that the American politician talking points about Chinese dumping and currency manipulation are overblown. But why pander to this obvious point?
Up to now, American-designed globalization — including trade and finance regimes — has overwhelmingly favored the United States, but the benefits go to those who own the firms instead of the citizens. No doubt, Trump’s foolish hardball risks a century’s work on international cooperation. Despite their flaws, these regimes are absolutely necessary. If anything, they need to be strengthened so that they can achieve the ethics they were created to promote. Befriending China in their story seems more about making sure the United States keeps a seat at the G20 table. But it can only do so much to redress the central problem.
The enduring question is how the disenfranchised — the proletariat and ever-growing “precariat” anywhere — can get what they need. Up to now, wealthy elites have driven the dislocation. Do the governance dreams described in Renovating Democracy challenge that power?
Nicolas Berggruen is the founder of the Berggruen Institute, to which Nathan Gardels is a senior advisor. Gardels is also the editor-in-chief of The WorldPost, a publication created by the Berggruen Institute in partnership with The Washington Post. The University of California Press printed this book in partnership with the Berggruen Institute. It is hard not to consider this book a sort of neoliberal project. Indeed, they even suggest that their
Think Long Committee itself is a template for the very kind of deliberative body — insulated from the short-term horizon of the partisan election cycle and special interests — that ought to be institutionalized as part of the new constitutional balance we propose going forward.
Presumably because Berggruen is a billionaire, the authors were able to speak with tech titans and political elites in interviews and at events held by their own institute. If their usage of adjectives describing the furniture in these sit-down scenes is any indication, they wanted the reader to know that they were there personally. Meanwhile, the Uber drivers that they surmise are empowered by the sharing economy went on strike in May. I believe they have ideas worth sharing as well.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a man? This is a question I struggled with as a child, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Midwest. The models of manhood I read about in novels, and saw on television and in the movies, weren’t all that different from what’s on offer today, although there does seem to be a little more ethnic and racial diversity and a greater range of roles that men can take, than before. Still, the old models for cisgender heterosexual men live on in all their irredeemable toxicity. Don’t rely on others, repress your emotions, strive for mastery and dominance, think of women as objects of your enjoyment. There is in such ideas a hidden gender melancholy, to borrow an idea from the philosopher Judith Butler, which manifests itself for cisgender heterosexual men in the ways in which they have been taught to be more or less ashamed of their own bodies. The message I received was that men are supposed to be the ones who look, and not to have bodies that are looked at — and certainly not to have bodies that are looked at by other men. This is the flip-side of the way cisgender women have been messaged.
Desiring but not desired: this is actually a pretty good description of the way I often felt as a teenager, and it led me to feel frequently like someone who could not be valued as a sexual being. Even now, to admit that women and some men desired me sexually feels somehow wrong, or maybe dangerous, to admit. Maybe this is because being desired also means being vulnerable. To be desired is to have a body that can be assessed and discussed and dismissed. It is to have a body that can turn out not to be desirable — or at least a body that has trouble finding others to desire it. It is also to have a body that can become, if it isn’t already, less able and more dependent on others for its care.
It was only when I went to college and graduate school, with exposure to queer theory and to representations of gay men, that I began to think it was possible to be a part of a different sexual economy while remaining a heterosexual man. It became possible to be a man and to possess a body that others found beautiful, because it was in these works that I first found such a possibility explicitly discussed. There was a relief in this, and a sense of power I hadn’t ever felt before. But more importantly, it allowed me to have a different relationship to my own body, marked as it is not only by gender but also by race, and to see it as desirable because others saw it as desirable. I don’t think I’m stretching too much to say that cisgender heterosexual men find such a sexual economy forbidding because it threatens their identity as heterosexual men, but it may also be the case that exposure to it might allow them the opportunity to renegotiate how they value their own masculinity, and perhaps might lead to less toxic models of manhood.
This is a long-winded way to say that where I thought Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous most shines is in its depiction of Little Dog’s relationship to Trevor. Little Dog is the name of the Vietnamese-American narrator, who is writing a long letter to his mother. In this letter, about midway through the novel, the narrator meets Trevor while working on a tobacco farm one summer. Trevor is a troubled and sensitive young white man, and when they meet there is instant sexual attraction. Eventually, they act on this attraction, and the language becomes deliberately explicit: “The first time we fucked, we didn’t fuck at all”; “We did what we had seen in porn”; “He fucked my hand until he shuddered, wet, like the muffler of a truck starting up in the rain.” In these passages, the narrator is always careful to let the reader know that the sex feels good. It also feels a little dirty. The pleasure is mixed with some shame. How could it not in a culture like ours, that’s so homophobic as well as racist and sexist?
Nevertheless, when Little Dog meets Trevor, a transformation occurs that changes the whole feel of the novel. Little Dog looks at himself in the mirror, seeing for the first time a body he can love. “It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me,” he writes, “I was day-dreaming, thinking about the day before, of Trevor and me behind the Chevy, and had stood in the tub with the water off for too long. By the time I stepped out, the boy before the mirror stunned me.” This felt to me the most wonderful moment in the novel: the sudden metamorphosis of the body, from an object of embarrassment seeking anonymity to something that reveals itself as worthy of desire. This moment makes all the rest, including Trevor’s eventual addiction to opioids and his early death, bearable.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the novel I most looked forward to reading in 2019. The title is so provocative, the story so obviously compelling, and the author already famous for his craft, how could I not want to read it? I had greatly enjoyed reading Ocean Vuong’s award-winning collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds; the poems in his collection play energetically with form and, while often difficult to decipher, reward effort. “Seventh Circle of Earth” is a salient example. It consists of the numbers one through seven strategically placed on two empty pages so that they seem to be circling each other like stars in the sky. Each number corresponds to a footnote, which contains the text of the poem. An epigraph refers to the murder of a gay couple in Dallas in 2011.
Maybe you might think this form is more of a gimmick than an actual poem. I wondered about that possibility as well, but the more space I gave it, the more inventive and profound it became. The empty page seems meant to remind the reader of loss (the death of the two men by deliberate fire), of the ways in which the orderliness of numbers hides more complex relationships, and the unspoken words when violence is reported in the news. The poem could be eliciting such meanings, while a reader may only see numbers on a page and footnotes that don’t encourage scrutiny.
More than this poem, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous prompts readers to take the more difficult path. In addition to telling Little Dog’s story, it tells the story of his grandmother Lan, who runs away from an arranged marriage during the war in Vietnam and ends up a sex worker. She marries a white American soldier, but the child she has is probably not his. The child is Little Dog’s mother Hong, or Rose (as she’s more often called in the novel), whose story the narrator also tells. Rose marries an abusive man and eventually separates from him. A single parent, she lives with her son and mother in Hartford. They are refugees who don’t speak much English, and Rose is just barely able, as a nail salon worker, to keep her small family financially afloat. Both Rose and Lan have flashbacks that leave the characters, and the reader, confused. Little Dog is small, sensitive, and gay, making him more of a target of violence — Rose occasionally hits him, especially when he is young.
All of this is revealed in the first third of the novel, and it’s as hard to read about as you’d imagine. What helped keep me going, however, is how the language lifts the reader out of the particulars of the story, to turn attention to an intensity of feeling that suffuses Little Dog’s sense of the world he inhabits. Take, for instance, the description of Lan with her infant trying to cross a checkpoint in Vietnam. It’s never clear where she is trying to go, or where the checkpoint is designed to keep some people from going to, but the moment is full of threat: “A woman, a girl, a gun. This is an old story, one anyone can tell. A trope in a movie you can walk away from if it weren’t already here, already written down.” The novel also invites the reader to see the situation differently:
It is a beautiful country depending on where you look. Depending on where you look you might see the woman waiting on the shoulder of the dirt road, an infant girl wrapped in a sky-blue shawl in her arms. She rocks her hips, cups the girl’s head. You were born, the woman thinks, because no one was coming. Because no one else is coming, she begins to hum.
The story is never just told, but rather the telling interrogates how it is being told. Viewpoints are actively foregrounded, and movies act as points of reference.
By the end of the novel, habituated ways of telling a story (“one anyone can tell”) shifts: “All this time I told myself we were born from war — but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence — but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.” To illustrate this point, the whole novel insists on immersing the reader in one beautiful image after another, and even alludes to Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just to foreground the philosophical implications of beauty itself. Little Dog summarizes Scarry’s argument:
I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time. To gaze at what pleases […] is, in itself, replication — the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last. Staring into the mirror, I replicate myself into a future where I might not exist.
As beautiful as the prose is throughout, however, the first third of this novel requires a lot of patience. The language is often figurative, slowing down the reading experience. At such moments, I wanted the narrator to speak more directly. There is also a lot of information, but it comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact, recounting one act of humiliation after another — of being physically abused, of being insulted and bullied, of finding even the act of going to the grocery store a painful exercise in frustration and abjection. The contrast between beautiful prose and the novel’s narrative of humiliation is often jarring. During such moments, my disagreement with Scarry’s argument came to mind, for I’ve long thought the argument values beauty too much as an obvious good when it can also be a distraction or a palliative, when something uglier or more discordant would be more appropriate.
There’s nothing obvious about the beauty of Vuong’s novel, however. It is a beauty that asserts itself against vociferous claims to the contrary and demands a different way of looking and valuing what is seen. The novel asks readers to pay attention to what they might otherwise turn away from — the experiences of war-related trauma transmitted over several generations, the difficulty of being a nonwhite refugee in the United States, the despair brought on by poverty (which the novel tackles movingly in its unrelenting indictment of how OxyContin has been marketed), and the need to assert a queer sexuality in a punishing heteronormative culture. The people caught up in such struggles are rarely considered beautiful, and certainly rarely, if ever, an inspiration for replication, but Little Dog is special in his insistence that they are beautiful. In doing so, he focuses attention on what makes life worth living even in the midst of so much refusal and abandonment. This kind of living is hard work.
ON MARCH 23, 2017, I had the good fortune to interview the award-winning poet Ocean Vuong as part of the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Public Library. He read from his acclaimed 2016 poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, ending with “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.” It is safe to say that many readers love Ocean Vuong and his writing, which continues with his highly anticipated first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, published by Random House on June 4, 2019.
This interview includes an edited version of our conversation at the event, followed by a selection of audience questions from the ensuing Q-and-A.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” is one of my favorite poems of yours, and I thought, I could never write a poem like that because I could never actually put my own name into my work. Yet it seems to me that this poem typifies so much of your writing, because it seems very courageous to confront yourself directly like this, but also it contains so much of your own voice, with trademark stylistic, futuristic, beautiful images. Was it a hard poem for you to write?
OCEAN VUONG: It was hard but necessary. I think, as a writer, when you approach that feeling, when you cross this threshold where risk is inevitable, where everything you’ve lived through demands you move into that precarious space, it embodies its own momentum. So I don’t know if it was hard. Terrifying, yes, but I’m not sure if I’m courageous in that sense, only that my sense of urgency outpaces my terror. That’s how I get the work done, with the knowledge that so many people — queer, brown people — before me didn’t get a chance to speak, or whose actual bodies were erased because of speaking. So when I approach the poem, I feel like there’s this burning desire to get it through, to speak, and I think sometimes that desire surpasses the terror. I always feel like I’m writing to the terrified versions of myself, and I figured, if I’m going to do it, why don’t I just really do it here in this poem, really go in.
Well, I think that’s an impulse that gives such tremendous force and power to the poetry. I just want to read you one quotation from someone who wrote about you in The Rumpus magazine. This writer says that “[Ocean’s] gift is not for avocados and fresh laundry, but for shocking the most jaded of readers with devastating earnestness.” Do you like that description of yourself as a poet?
You know, I love it. I think, when I write a book, that I create my private town square, in a way, and readers, if I’m lucky to have them, meet there and do whatever they want. You build this space and a reader steps in, and whatever they see is part of their interaction with it. I can’t tell them that it’s wrong, or it’s off, because that’s how I, as a reader, feel most liberated: when I come to my own conclusions.
If Whitman came back from the dead and said, “‘Song of Myself’ is actually about baseball,” it wouldn’t make the text any less true. We would still have already taken what we needed from it, had this dialogue with the writer. I think, ultimately, reader and writer are always creating. And I think that, as long as we’re reading, we’re making spaces, we’re making the spaces in relation to ourselves. Like in your novel, The Sympathizer, you created a universe based on history, but you created this parallel space where we now move through history, we embody it. We’re pulling it through and we’re in the entire world of this person. We surrender so much to it. And yet we participate, “Well, how am I empathetic with this person whose life is so different from mine? Or, whose life is in a temporal space that I never got to live through?” I think that’s the power, because we’re always having a dialogue.
I think there’s certainly the sense that there is an Ocean Vuong in the book, as a persona, an Ocean Vuong the poet, a persona separate from you as an individual and as a writer. It’s a very seductive persona, at least for me, seeing you read, seeing you perform. The poems are exhilarating and your performance is very powerful and moving. I think that maybe one of the reasons why we resonate, because we’ve shared a lot of bonding time talking about how we’re Vietnamese-American writers and these identities are important to us. I think one of the things that we share, going back to this question of earnestness, and whether or not it’s really a completely accurate description of your entire work, is that I think we’re also both committed to what you have said in one of your poems, which is that your work is to say the unsayable.
Do you remember this? You brought up the issue of voice, about the opportunity to speak that other people don’t have, especially poets of color. To me, looking at your biography and what you’ve spoken about, it seems that this impulse to say the unsayable, this urgent drive toward honesty, this drive toward earnestness, if that describes one part of what you do, is rooted in some of your own biographical experiences. For a poet, you have a great origin story. You should fill in some of the blanks, but coming here at two years old, as a refugee, to Hartford, Connecticut, and with an illiterate family, and you didn’t learn how to read until you were 11.
Yeah, well, I didn’t learn how to read well until I was 11. I was in the school system, and I struggled. My family actually struggles with learning disabilities: my brother is dyslexic, and I think part of that forced me to slow down. I think it forces us to read in that participatory way that I spoke about, where we’re not reading to get these sort of pillaging answers, or theses, but we’re reading to be inhabited, to be inhabited by the text, the text as weather, as world, and I think I was forced to do that.
We think of origin stories, and I understand that in the literary context, in this privileged space of the literary world, my life is very “unique.” But I think the reality for myself is that our entire history as a species has been wrought with violence and displacement. So, in fact, it’s a very common trope, and yet, few of us get to be here to speak, people like you and me. And I think we share that urgency, at least what I feel in your work, but there are many people with much more interesting lives that just didn’t get to speak. The person with the next great book is washing dishes, bent over at a nail salon, rubbing people’s feet, working in a factory, and that’s where a lot of my family are from. I feel very privileged to be able to be here and have this book as a technology, as a vessel. And that’s what it is to me: a sort of vessel that we get to speak with. But I don’t know if it’s special or unique to me. I think there are so many more lives that are special that get lost without being articulated.
You and I share a common background in terms of being refugees, and being displaced, although your refugee experience is very different from mine. Even though I was a refugee and my parents were not educated — they didn’t go to college, for example — I was raised with all the benefits that would lead me to becoming a writer. A very good school, and all of this kind of stuff, whereas you, when I’m saying that you have a great origin story, you didn’t have those kinds of benefits. Even though you’re pointing to people who’d wash dishes and so on, you yourself didn’t come with these kinds of literal advantages.
I worked in a tobacco farm.
Yeah, you worked in a tobacco farm, and you worked in the nail salon a little bit with your mother as well, right? I think that the shared experience as refugees helped turn us into writers, certainly it did for me. I want to read a little bit more from your biography, how someone said about you, “He always wanted to know more, but his elders resisted going too far.” You were asking your parents, and your grandmother, about this history, and they didn’t want to talk about it, right?
Right, right. I think a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees experience this sort of sense of, when we look back and ask, and interrogate the survival of our elders, it is seen as an act of betrayal in many ways. “Why are you interrogating my pain when I moved here to make you happy, when I moved here for you to have a happy life? Why are you interrogating what I survived?” I think there’s a discrepancy there, a disconnect, a distance. I had to explain that to my family, that I’m doing this to preserve that act of survival. Maybe they’ll never understand, really, but that’s the confrontation.
My mother doesn’t speak English, and she went to one of my readings. This was in Hartford, and we’re in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center of all places, and the reading’s over, and I go back with her, and I see she’s crying. I said, “Mom? You didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. Why are you crying?” And she said, “I never thought I’d live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.” When I give a reading, I don’t think about that. It doesn’t come to my head, and that’s where we’re different, right? Then I remembered that here’s a woman who kneels down, lowers her head every day to old white people while she’s doing their pedicures, that’s her job, that’s part of her livelihood, and that act, although it’s a fair and equal exchange, is not nothing. There’s meaning in that act of supplication, this head lowered just to do the very practical act of giving a pedicure. I think for the first time they were also clapping for her.
There’s a moment in one of your essays where you talk about your uncle, who was only a few years older than you. He was also working in the nail salon, and he spoke English, but he was shy, he never said anything. The customers in the salon would talk about him as if he didn’t understand, and they were … What were they saying?
“What a shame, he would be … He’s so young, what a waste…” This is someone … I’m sorry.
The essay spoke about your uncle committing suicide, and you went into that. It was a powerful essay. I bring it up, along with the relationship to your mother, because I think this is a very common experience for Vietnamese people, but also refugees, immigrants, who come and work these kinds of jobs — they’re just furniture in these kinds of places, to service people. That’s why I’ve only ever actually gone to a Vietnamese nail salon once. It was an uncomfortable experience, because I could converse with the woman doing my pedicure, the only time I’ve ever had a pedicure, but every other customer was not Vietnamese. I thought, “I don’t want to be serviced by Vietnamese people in this way for the very reasons that you’re talking about.”
And the pronouns make it possible, or rather, the derangement of pronouns, when the person lowering themselves before you is a cô or chị (big aunt, big sister), and all of a sudden, it’s very difficult to speak to an elder, to speak down to an elder. I think this is part of the reason it was so difficult for me to teach my mother to read. I tried, but how does a son direct a mother? The only grounding she has in this country where she is often mute, often invisible, often beneath others, is to be a mother. “That’s my son. I made that.” So for me to be this authority figure fractures the last remaining tether that we have. So I let it go, and we speak through presence. Also, my mother’s Vietnamese is fifth-grade level at best. I had to learn, living in an illiterate family, to communicate through presence.
For the Vietnamese, a lot of love is articulated through service. We don’t say, I love you. We cook, we massage, we cạo gió, we scratch each other’s backs. It’s always this action, and it started to inform the way I thought about language — that language is embodied, language is carried. I think that’s how I maneuver the rhythms in my work. The intuitive moments of the line break, the silences, the pauses, the alliteration, all of that is finding an embodied movement of language, carrying the language, which is why I seldom write. I carry, and then I walk, and I interrogate, and have this friction with the line. The writing is the last part for me.
Now, I don’t know for sure what is autobiographical or not autobiographical in your work, but the persona is autobiographical. When you write, do you feel a tension between the act of making poetry and the act of autobiography? Do you feel there’s a potential violation or extraction taking place if you do pull material out of lives that are not your own?
Yeah, it’s a tension that I have as an artist. But I do think that at the end of the day we inherit the genes of our elders. We also inherit their personalities, and their stories. It’s interesting that you turned to fiction. My genesis with the storytelling in my family is that I would do this thing where I would take. My grandmother would get me to pluck her white hairs out. This is very common in Vietnamese, nhổ tóc ngứa. It’s like there’s like a euphemism that they’ll say, “Oh, take out my itchy hairs.” They don’t say white hairs, right? They’re like, itchy hairs. She’ll say, “Oh, come take out grandma’s itchy hairs, I’m so itchy.” It’s vanity in the guise of service, which is how everything works in a Vietnamese household.
She would sit between my legs, and I would get sleepy, I was six or seven, and to get me to keep going, she would tell me a story. She would tell me ghost stories, knowing that if I heard a ghost story, immediately I’d be alert. But the ghost story was also her story, the story of history. She’s telling a ghost story, but all of a sudden, now there are bombs, now there are gunshots, now there’s a house on fire. Now, where did your mother come from? What did I do when I met your mother’s father? Where do your aunts come from? There was this village over here, and over there, there was this girl. All of a sudden, we’re back into that world, these blank walls of Hartford became this sort of time capsule. Likewise, you hear the story over and over, and each time the story changes a little bit.
By the time you get to the ghost, it was almost an afterthought. The mythology that she created becomes an architecture for remembering and preserving, and ultimately, an act of inheritance. For me, myth-making, we can go all the way back to Homer. Homer wrote the Iliad 400 years after the Trojan War. So what did he invent, and what did he inherit? If he decided to be silent, we would lose everything about him, and that war, and his people and what they valued. And so, I see the inheritance of a story like the inheritance of an object that we create, except the neat thing is that it’s continuously being shaped and reshaped each time it’s told.
It reminds me of something you wrote about in that essay for The Rumpus, about your uncle. In the essay, you were talking about your uncle’s suicide, but you’re also talking about fire escapes in New York City. The poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance, a place where I can be as honest as I need to be, but I still have my body and with it, these words. Then, in another passage, I think this is actually from your poems, you said the body is the book, and one needs the body. I want to get to that, that connection between the body and writing, because it seems very, very important in your work. Obviously, the body as a theme, as a motif, and what the body does, is omnipresent. What is the relationship between the body and writing? Why is the body the book, and why does one need the body in order to write?
I think a lot of times the way critics have carried other bodies of work, other texts, is often through the amputation of the person from the text itself. Think of how Harold Bloom praises John Ashbery’s work but in many ways ignores, or at worst rejects, his homosexuality, his queerness. We would know by reading the work that those things are intertwined — how can you separate one part of a writer from his text?
That perhaps is clearest in the act of storytelling, which is how literature began. The first stories were our ancestors waiting for the meat to cook on the fire, looking up at the stars, making up a story. From that story, we get to know their joys, their terrors, what they cared about. Suddenly, it wasn’t only about the story. It was about them. It was a DNA of their personhood articulated on the page. When I see a book, I see the fingerprint, the mental and emotional fingerprint of a person on the page. Without language, we wouldn’t have that, just like without the body, we wouldn’t have the language. To me, it’s intertwined, and I think that, when we start to value text as much as we value bodies, we start to understand a more holistic idea of what a person is, and perhaps value them more or better.
The body of the poet is definitely involved in the poetry itself, and in the book, the body of Ocean Vuong is involved with the bodies of your new readers there, and the bodies of other men. It’s a very important subject for the book. There’s one moment where you say, “To love another man is to leave no one behind to forgive me. I want to leave no one behind.” I wonder if you can unpack those lines for me.
For me, there’s so much there, and I don’t want to be coy, but I hesitate laying it all “out,” because in many ways that would take away from what a reader got from it. The text is an object, and we all get to inhabit it and interact with it, but if I insist that this is my meaning, if I start to claim it, I almost undo what I’ve done by offering it into the world — I start to take it back. To me, this is the antithesis of what it means to be a writer in communication with the world, as opposed to a writer in communication with himself in a notebook, or a diary, or something like that.
Okay, I’m still going to ask you about the poetry, though, because I’m a critic, and now I’m in the role of an interviewer, so I have to ask you something. If you tell me you’re not going to answer, I’m going to have to go back at it again. Here’s another passage from your poetry that really stood out for me: “How one night after backhanding my mother, then, taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table, my father went to kneel in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls, and so I learned that a man in climax was the closest thing to surrender.” Beautiful, and violent, and a sexual set of images — which, again, I think is a fair way of describing much of what happens in your poetry. As we were talking about this in advance, I said, “Oh, was this hard to write, because it seems to be autobiographical?” Obviously, autobiographically, you have spoken of your father outside of the poetry as well, but you were telling me that you also made up parts of these things in this section. You don’t have to tell us what you did or didn’t make up.
Again, I’m curious about that relationship — trying to mediate between what you know readers will know of your autobiography and the construction of a scene, or of the narrator in a particular poem. For me, the force of this, besides its power as a set of images, is that invocation of the father and this very violent act that he’s doing, this very secret act that he’s doing at the same time.
I think going back to the idea, the word “poet” in the Greek is a “creator,” and I think, for myself, I see the act of the imagination in service of larger questions. And so, as a poet, I often invent these spaces based on truths. We go back to Dickinson’s age-old model of model of tell the truth but tell it slant. In that scene particularly, I was interested in seeing fatherhood, and my father particularly, as an entire person despite what he feels comfortable displaying. I was questioning masculinity and the vulnerabilities inherent in performing masculinity, and how that starts to collapse and break down into violent ruptures.
I think these scenes, they’re always in service of this question, and I think I prioritize that last moment — what does it mean for a man to destroy within his family and then to escape through pleasure and climax? What is that for me? I think it’s this moment of surrender, it’s this moment of letting go of himself, because the society and the culture have created a space where he can no longer perform in it. It’s actually a straitjacket of masculinity. What does it mean when you have to look up to him to be a man, what do you inherit then? For me, I tried to inherit not necessarily what he performed, but where he failed, where it fell apart, because that’s a lesson, too.
We live in a culture, I think, where failure is immediately doomed, or blacklisted. But for me, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to reimagine and redefine failure for ourselves. What does it mean to fail well, to fail better?
This poem worked for me both as a poem and as a commentary on Vietnamese-American masculinity, which I’m pretty familiar with, too. I think that your explanation renders clear for the audience that this is what a lot of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American men face, that straitjacket of heterosexual masculinity, and then, they take it out on everybody else …
And also, trauma. I think a lot of this has been ignored, how Vietnam is such a small, localized space, no bigger than California, with thousands of years of warfare. And so, what does that mean when destruction and loss have inhabited this extremely small space? What does it mean for the art, for the body? We know through epigenetics that trauma is embodied, we inherit it. A lot of Vietnamese men suffer from mental illness, my uncle included. There’s a reason why, all of a sudden, these people living through PTSD now have to perform these domestic acts, and they can’t do it. I think that’s often ignored in the drinking, in the violence. They’re struggling, and I think that’s what I wanted to examine.
As I grew up in America, I started to see these white men experience similar struggles, where they started to fear this idea of failing at masculinity, when they are already men, but they’re failing. “No homo,” right? What happens is that you lose intimacy between men, and thus you lose the humanity that men get to express. I started to see that connection between these two spaces, and how men exist in a space.
Well, I still have a lot of questions, but I know audience members probably have questions, too. I want to turn it over to the audience and see what you all have for Ocean Vuong.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for your beautiful reading. When I examined your work, I tried to figure out how it’s done, and you explained a little bit about alliteration and embodying it. I’m still wondering if there’s something you’re trying to achieve, like maybe a sentence that has no period, or something that is just moving, or trying to be as expressive of as many ideas crammed into one sentence. Even hearing your reading, I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know if it’s being done on purpose, or if it’s just the way it naturally flows.
OCEAN VUONG: I think why I fell in love with poetry was that it allowed freedom in articulation. And so, what does it mean when a poem ends without a period? What does that mean for the voice? Was it cut off? Was it unfinished? All of a sudden, the removal of punctuation adds those questions, amplifies those concerns. I believe in one of Whitman’s versions of Leaves of Grass, after “Song of Myself,” he left out the period by accident. I thought that was the best version, because it ends with, “I stop somewhere waiting for you,” with no period. I have to participate in that perioding. I think formal manipulations add meaning the way body adds meaning, the way we sit, the way we talk, our voice, all those pressures are also language.
IMAGINE: YOU’VE SPENT your entire life as a struggling writer — a poet of no account, whose first book of prose sold so poorly that your publisher forced you to buy back the unsold stock, whose second book received warm and plentiful reviews but took five years to sell out its first print run of 2,000, whose career looked like it was finally starting to take off as you rounded 40, only to be cut short by your death at 44 — imagine you’ve struggled your whole life to leave a perfect mark, and, at your funeral, your eulogist, arguably the most famous author in America, spends the first half of his 7,500-word speech lamenting your lack of ambition, your personal coldness, the disappointment you brought to friends and family. “[I]nstead of engineering for all America,” he would tell all those assembled, “he was the captain of a huckleberry party.” Would you call that person “friend”?
Those final words that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his former protégée Henry David Thoreau have stunned audiences for over 150 years, and have largely fixed the story posterity has told of their relationship. That story goes something like this:
When Thoreau returned from college to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, there to begin his literary career, he found it already occupied. Emerson, 14 years Thoreau’s senior, had taken up residence just a few years before. It was from Concord that Emerson had launched “Nature” (1836), the founding work of American transcendentalism, and his career. By the time Thoreau unpacked his bags in 1837, Emerson was already a celebrity.
Concord is a small town now; it was tiny in the 19th century, perhaps too small for two writers of talent and ambition (to say nothing of the others who would soon crowd in: Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson). Nevertheless, for about 10 years Thoreau and Emerson were fast friends, spending hours in each other’s company trading ideas and workshopping manuscripts. It was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond in 1845 and there lived for two years, honing his craft and writing the manuscript of his first book, the one that failed to sell, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
It was also during those Walden years that Thoreau emerged from Emerson’s shadow, politically (Thoreau played the radical to Emerson’s patrician), stylistically (in the Walden woods, Thoreau developed a new, distinct voice), and philosophically (he turned away from Emerson’s idealism to something more grounded in the everyday). Perhaps predictably, their friendship started to show signs of stress. From about 1850 until Thoreau’s death 12 years later, the relationship was a rocky one, marked by strife and the hurt feelings that culminated in the eulogy Emerson gave, which was eventually published in The Atlantic, and which cemented the perception of their friendship as intense, short-lived, and followed by years of friction.
There’s truth in this sketch, but Jeffrey S. Cramer’s new book, Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, fills in, for the first time, the highlights, shadows, and fundamental imbalances that never quite ruined Thoreau and Emerson’s friendship, even as it brought both men great pain.
One of the reasons that Thoreau and Emerson’s relationship has been so far incompletely rendered is the sheer volume of writing each generated. Thoreau’s journal, for instance, runs to two million words; Emerson’s, more than three. Each man wrote about friendship in dozens of essays, and in smatterings throughout their books. And then there are the collections of letters and reminiscences and ephemera to comb through — and that’s just the published stuff. Becoming a scholar of either Emerson or Thoreau takes years of dedication; becoming fluent in both is rare, and so previous takes on their relationship have, of necessity, been one-sided. Cramer is well positioned, as the curator of collections at the Walden Woods Project’s Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods Library, to tell Thoreau’s story, and he’s published seven volumes on everything from Walden to Thoreau’s most quotable aphorisms. But he’s also at home in Emersonia (he’s the editor of Penguin’s The Portable Emerson ), and one of the things that immediately struck me about Solid Seasons is the patient mastery of an enormous body of work. Even in our era of digital Ctrl-F searching and algorithmic surface reading, the depth and breadth of Cramer’s research is astounding: over 800 footnotes for a book barely 300 pages long.
The second thing that struck me is the book’s structure: it’s odd.
Cramer begins with “Solid Seasons,” a 100-page dual biography of Thoreau and Emerson that’s largely bereft of either argument or interpretation. There’s really no narrative, either, no tension or development, no arc or spiral or crisis or resolution or moral. There’s little context; this is not a reconstruction of a world past. Nor does Cramer meditate on his subjects’ interior states. It is, instead, a chronicle that skips lightly and chronologically from source to source. You can almost see Cramer’s outline, each fact — Lidian Emerson’s 1837 note that her husband had recently taken a keen interest in Thoreau; Thoreau’s 1846 journal observation that Emerson was “not so adequate to his task”; Emerson’s recollection, in 1878, as his mind was slipping, that Thoreau was his best friend — you can almost watch as each fact and source is scaffolded in and sentences mortared out from them. There’s very little motion to the biography, and it recalls an earlier style of writing history, one popular around the turn of the 20th century, when the ever-present fixation of American historians on objectivity and professional authority hardened into obsession in which nearly everything beyond the empirically verifiable was scrubbed in the name of historical purity.
Such an approach — taken by itself — isn’t all that strange, despite its antiquity; and you can find plenty of current books, written by both academics and amateurs, whose scheme is similar. What is odd is the way that Cramer doubles, even triples down on his empiricism in parts two, “Henry David Thoreau,” and three, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” which are composed exclusively of Cramer’s quoted source material, arranged chronologically. It’s as if his extensive footnotes aren’t enough — he gives the audience his unmediated archive.
This makes for slow, repetitive reading: Cramer will quote from a source in his biographical part one (as when Emerson wrote of Thoreau’s “old fault of unlimited contradiction”), and then reproduce the entire relevant passage in part two or three (“Henry Thoreau sends me a paper with the old fault of unlimited contradiction”). But, as I came to appreciate, such slowness and repetition is the book’s point, its strength; and what subtle motion there is comes from Cramer’s patient layering of sources one atop the other. It’s tidal, and like water running downhill, the book slowly sifts and sorts and reshapes how we understand each man.
For instance, one of the most common misreadings of Thoreau is that he was a misanthrope who fled from society to nature out of spite for everything human. But what Cramer reveals is a person intensely aware of how he was perceived and how his own intensity burned others: “I lose my friends,” Thoreau wrote in 1851, “by my own ill treatment, and ill valuing of them, prophaning of them, cheapening of them.” Friendship, for Thoreau, was strenuous, a “conjunction of souls,” a “glowing furnace in which all impurities are consumed,” a process that refined each person into the absolute best version of himself.
Such demands are exhausting, of course, and they drove people from Thoreau, which broke his heart: “Actually I have no friend. I am very distant from all actual persons — and yet my experience of friendship is so real and engrossing that I sometimes find myself speaking aloud to the ideal friend.” Nor were the woods, for Thoreau, the antithesis of society; “Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or hare?” he asks. What Cramer’s layered chronicle suggests, though never explicitly argues, is that a purifying friendship, in which each one of us is the best we can possibly be, is at the root of Thoreau’s environmental and social ethic, not wilderness nor misanthropy nor even individualism. “To insure health,” Thoreau wrote, “a man’s relation to Nature must come very near to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in her; when human friends fail or die, she must stand in the gap.”
Emerson was different, and one of the biggest surprises of Solid Seasons is to discover how much Emerson relied on the younger writer for inspiration. Thoreau was Emerson’s muse; “Self-Reliance” (1841) was inspired by the younger Concordian (“I admire this perennial threatening attitude,” he would write soon after “Self-Reliance” was published), and Emerson was constantly jotting down Thoreau’s phrases and cast-off ideas eventually to work them up into a lecture. But such admiration could turn sour, and by the mid-1840s it had begun to curdle; for Emerson, friendship was hierarchical, less a twinning of equals than a competition. “[T]hough I prize my friends,” he wrote in his essay “Friendship” (1841), “I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own. […] [T]hou art enlarged by thy own shining, and, no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of the empyrean.”
Emerson could never understand Thoreau’s perpetual rejection (it took him only five eulogistic sentences to condemn Thoreau for his ingratitude to Harvard, both men’s alma mater), never could square his earthiness (why would anyone pick huckleberries when greatness called?) until well after Thoreau’s death. Nor could Thoreau ever accept Emerson’s patrician pursuit of fame, which he dismissed as pandering. By the time Solid Seasons reaches its conclusion — with Emerson’s eulogy — it becomes clear that all those criticisms of Emerson’s were meant not as condemnation, but the words of someone baffled by a companion’s life, and reeling with the pain of loss. It wasn’t until Emerson began reading through Thoreau’s journals, in the wake of Thoreau’s death, that he understood their fundamental incompatibility:
That oaken strength which I noted whenever [Thoreau] walked or worked or surveyed wood-lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work, which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, and ventures on and performs feats which I am forced to decline.
Each of us has a friend like Thoreau, someone more likely to criticize than praise; and we all have a friend like Emerson, who needs others so that he may shine more brightly. The wonder is not that Thoreau and Emerson’s relationship threw sparks, but that it burned as cheerily as it did, even as its embers cooled. “Friends such as we desire,” wrote Emerson, “are dreams and fables.”
When I finally finished Solid Seasons, when I closed its cover and laid it on my floor, I felt a remarkable presence, even though I was alone. It’s an idiosyncratic book, a minimalist history, Thoreauvian in its desire to be just as it is, generous in the way it bares itself, full of trust that readers are smart enough to spin conclusions for themselves, and intense in its demand that they elevate themselves to the task.
WRITER, TEACHER, AND ACTIVIST David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation, sees mindfulness — the practice of meditation — as a useful way to dismantle our “attachments to conditioned patterns of dominant beliefs” and expand our ability to develop better, more meaningful relationships. But he also believes that mindfulness has its limitations. In and of itself, he writes, mindfulness cannot cure what ails our society and can do little to nothing to reverse the manifold legacies of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia that continue to plague us. His conclusion is stark:
By encouraging people to look solely to themselves and to look within, in alignment with neoliberal values, [those profiting from mindfulness] have allowed mindfulness to contribute to the therapeutic adjustment to an unhealthy society within schools, corporations, the workplace, the military, and elsewhere.
It doesn’t have to be this way, Forbes argues. In fact, rather than accommodating ourselves to toxic sociopolitical realities, mindfulness practitioners can express “righteous anger” and oppose oppressive conditions. He calls this an “integral” approach to mindfulness.
I sat down with Forbes in early April for a conversation that touched on the uses and misuses of mindfulness by both the business world and educational reformers.
ELEANOR J. BADER: Before we talk about Mindfulness and Its Discontents, can you tell me how you came to mindfulness in the first place?
DAVID FORBES: I was introduced to it by my therapist about 20 years ago. Before this, I’d dismissed what I thought mindfulness promoted as flaky. The line “just feel, don’t think” always pissed me off. Then, when I discovered Ken Wilber, whose latest book is Integral Mindfulness, I gradually came to see the practice as potentially helpful. But I’ve also been a progressive activist for most of my life, so I wanted to find a way to put the two things together, to be simultaneously self-reflective and politically involved.
Mindfulness and Its Discontents is highly critical of the ways corporations use mindfulness. You write that they promote the myth that “individuals can just choose stress or wellness, misery or happiness,” which completely sidesteps the conditions that exacerbate tensions and stress people out on the job and in their lives. Do you think this is intentional?
Sometime in the 1990s, corporations like Monsanto and Aetna started to bring mindfulness into the workplace. The practice promotes an individualized approach to alleviating stress that never gets to the root causes of that stress. It’s become a big business, and trainers and mindfulness studios are profiting big-time. Some of us, like my colleague Ron Purser, call it the McMindfulness industry.
I have a cousin whose husband is a lawyer. He brought mindfulness into his firm to try to have a calmer, happier, and more productive staff. That’s great, but for me it comes down to the bottom line. Mindfulness training and classes can be a great perk, but if the source of the employee’s stress is too much work, for too many hours a day, or too many hours a week, for too little pay, mindfulness won’t help them feel less stressed out. Mindfulness won’t help them if they’re worried because their child’s after-school program was defunded or they have no access to health care.
When and why did mindfulness come to public schools in the United States?
A group called CASEL (casel.org) — the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning — has for several decades promoted social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom, and mindfulness adherents have joined up with them. The problem is that their agenda aligns with the values of educational reformers who see education largely as a training ground to get kids ready to enter a competitive economy.
SEL advocates are well intentioned, but they’re helping kids adjust to standardized tests, for example, rather than questioning and opposing the tests. And it goes much deeper. Some schools practice “restorative justice”: when a child acts out in some way, they call the child in to talk. If there was a fight, they may bring in the victim. They may meet with their peers, as well. This is meant to give the perpetrator a chance to hear from the person they targeted and other classmates — with the goal of helping such perpetrators understand the consequences of their behavior and give them a chance to make amends. This is certainly better than suspending the child, but it does not address the deeper structural inequalities that may have led to the fight. The acting out was probably a response to something systemic, and as teachers or counselors we need to ask why the perpetrator feels alienated. We need to find out what is happening in children’s lives or communities — or within the school system itself — that they find anger-inducing, and then we need to challenge these inequities.
Again, anything that moves us away from the school-to-prison pipeline is good, but this process lets schools off the hook in terms of addressing the root causes of the tensions between students. All too often schools stop the discussion without formulating a strategy for improving the underlying material conditions.
I’ve witnessed what happens when counselors do a “push-in,” literally coming into a classroom to teach mindfulness. The kids are instructed to breathe and notice their feelings and thoughts about, say, an upcoming test. The exercise is done to help them calm down and adjust, but instead of adjusting to a shitty exam, how about if we mindfully discuss why there are high-stakes tests, who benefits from them, and how they are used. Can we use mindfulness to help students envision other ways to learn? Sadly, we rarely reflect on what a truly meaningful education would look like.
All of this functions to tamp down anger. Is that the goal?
We rarely ask ourselves if anger might be justified. What does grown-up anger look like? Is there a productive or mature way to express righteous fury?
Actually, let me go off on a tangent before discussing this further. There are concrete, practical ways of using mindfulness in a classroom. One thing we can do is to look at the hidden norms of a particular school or program. A school can be cold and alienating, or it can be nurturing, caring, and show respect to everyone. Mindfulness can be a trigger to awareness of what a specific school’s culture is actually like. Still, there is more to it than that. A lot of what is taught in school is meant to socialize kids to be productive members of society. The problem is that a lot of conventional and accepted behaviors are unhealthy. Moving beyond conventional ideas allows people to be autonomous in their thinking and tolerant of ambiguity. This allows folks to question and transform competitive norms on the basis of principled moral positions and not simply out of frustration.
Now let’s go back to anger. On one end of the spectrum there are people who recommend stifling it, bottling it up, holding it in. On the other end are those who say that everyone has the right to rebel. That’s fine — that’s true — but if kids who are rebelling are constantly getting into trouble, their behavior is likely causing problems for them or for someone else. Certain mindfulness educators encourage students to dismiss strong emotions like anger as “disembodied visitors” that just come and go. I don’t find that helpful.
There’s a middle ground, focused around critical pedagogy, with someone kicking off a conversation, a deconstruction, which addresses the systemic wrongs that are affecting everyone, while acknowledging that working in solidarity with others to promote change may make the school fairer, friendlier, and more equitable. It’s a move away from looking at things as individual problems needing individual solutions. This is a way for students to avoid undermining themselves by acting out as solo players.
This can also extend into a discussion of drug and alcohol abuse. We can ask why people are so traumatized that they feel they have to numb themselves. Looking at it this way — not as someone engaging in bad behavior that requires punishment — gives us a way to add cultural and political context to the reality that particular people are living.
You’re talking about making SEL educators more attuned to broader sociopolitical concerns and making social justice activists more mindful of the realities facing individuals. How can this be promoted?
Some progressives are rigid and dogmatic and some mindfulness educators think that meditating and changing the individual is enough to create a new social order. As I see it, mindfulness can help us gain a more sophisticated relationship with those we consider our enemies. Of course, progressives have to actively oppose white supremacists, sexists, and homophobes, but in the vein of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, we can fight like hell but with the most compassion possible.
Personal mindfulness can be step one, but mindful social action is step two. Ultimately, they are inseparable.
How can we incorporate this kind of mindful, disruptive resistance into schools and workplaces?
A group of students in a school can analyze policies that get in the way of compassion and work to get people involved in changing the way things are done. Mindful social action can lead people to create solutions, to come up with strategies to win the changes they want to see. This can include everything from calling meetings, to petitioning, to planning protests. Folks working together can also determine whether their fight should be waged on the local, state, or national level.
Everyone doing this should be aware that there will likely be pushback, since some teachers see mindfulness and/or social action as unnecessary add-ons to their already long hours — so those advocating change need to understand this and be prepare to respond. Bosses and managers are also likely to resist change.
But mindfulness gives you the ability to step back, reflect, and put aside your worldview. Mindfulness further allows you to witness thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This allows you and others to examine your socially conditioned ideas and assumptions. You stop taking everything so personally. It gives you a mechanism for letting go of your attachments and moving to a less egocentric or conventional point of view. Instead of adjusting to the status quo, it can be a good way to start moving forward.
IN ITS MAY 27, 1950 ISSUE, The New Yorker published Roger Angell’s short, whimsical piece about “the decline of privacy,” a development “speeded by electronics” that was subtly reshaping politics, relationships, and the national pastime. “At a recent ball game,” he reported, “a sensitive microphone at home plate picked up the rich comments of one of the team managers to the umpire and sent them winging to thousands of radio sets, instantly turning the listeners into involuntary eavesdroppers.”
This was among the first bits of baseball-related writing Angell did for the magazine. In the decades that followed, he would file dozens more pieces about the sport — a knowledgeable and oft-anthologized roster of player profiles, World Series wrap-ups, and state-of-the-game “summer essays.” His most recent baseball piece — a funny item about an angry Houston Astros pitcher who surrendered a 440-foot home run and proceeded to punch himself “in the chest and then in the jaw” — was posted on The New Yorker’s website on May 2, 2018.
At 98, Angell is a one-man archive of hardball history. “He watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig belt home runs in Yankee Stadium, and he blogged the 2017 postseason,” Joe Bonomo writes in No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing. His longevity is impressive, but as Bonomo demonstrates, it’s not the primary reason why many believe Angell is our greatest living baseball scribe. According to Bonomo, “[n]o other writer has written about the game as elegantly, artfully, thoughtfully, and memorably.”
The author of several books about rock music, Bonomo has written a well-sourced and intelligent portrait of the erudite but unpretentious Angell. Carefully assessing his subject’s copious output, Bonomo quotes his best pieces at length and draws on Angell’s archive of notes and early drafts for context. His analysis is bolstered by his interviews with Tina Brown, David Remnick, Janet Malcolm, and other boldface names who have worked alongside Angell. The result is a gratifying quasi-biography of a superb prose stylist who came of age in an era of thick, general-interest magazines, a successful writer of fiction who found, as the years passed, that he preferred to focus on baseball.
Almost 70 years ago, when Angell wrote that breezy piece about privacy, he wasn’t yet a New Yorker staffer. After a stint in the Army Air Force — during World War II, he wrote for a military publication in Hawaii — Angell spent most of the 1950s with Holiday, an urbane travel magazine that would publish John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, and William Faulkner. All the while, he was publishing short fiction in The New Yorker — more than 20 stories between the mid-1940s and 1960, Bonomo says. His writing helped earn him a staff spot; in 1956, he was hired as the magazine’s fiction editor, “but there were surely suspicions of nepotism among colleagues,” Bonomo notes. Angell’s mother, Katharine White, held the same job before him, and his stepfather, E. B. White, had written for The New Yorker for decades.
Nevertheless, the new hire seems to have settled in without many complications, and in the years that followed, “Angell would edit some of the great names in twentieth-century literature (John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Thurber, among others) and help discover new voices (Donald Barthelme and Ann Beattie, among them).” Remnick, the magazine’s current editor, believes that, in this stretch of his career, Angell became “one of the most influential fiction editors in the history of the country.” Meanwhile, in 1960, his “small, bemused, ironic, slice-of-life” works of fiction were collected in The Stone Arbor and Other Stories. The book garnered mostly positive reviews, but by then, Angell was basically done writing fiction. In a 2016 interview with Bonomo, Angell says that he knew he’d “never be a novelist. It just wasn’t in me. I was more and more involved as an editor,” a task that occupied most of his working hours.
In 1962, at the urging of William Shawn, The New Yorker’s top editor, Angell prepared to write the first of his long baseball pieces. “The assignment was vague and Angell admittedly apprehensive,” Bonomo says, “but the editors agreed that he’d head down to Florida,” where the New York Mets, readying for their inaugural season in the National League, had convened for spring training. Seated in the bleachers of ballparks in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Angell watched as hopeful rookies took batting practice and seasoned coaches offered tips.
One afternoon, amid “the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield,” Angell and a few paying fans looked on as a trio of pitchers shared a private joke. He was jealous, he admitted: “[W]e would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.” In an era of name-brand sports columnists like Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, some of whom were as famous as the athletes they covered, baseball writers weren’t supposed to acknowledge that they sometimes envied the men on the field. But Angell would “return to this idea of the immutable distance between players and fans again and again,” writes Bonomo.
Angell’s sensitivity to the average fan’s perspective was mirrored by his affection for unsung utility infielders, anonymous scouts, and players who enjoyed great success before flaming out in spectacular fashion. One of his finest pieces is a profile of Steve Blass, who pitched the Pittsburgh Pirates to victory in the 1971 World Series, then saw his career collapse when he could no longer throw the ball over the plate.
At Blass’s home, the pitcher and the writer “played an imaginary baseball game together,” Angell wrote in the June 15, 1975 New Yorker. Aware “that in spite of his enforced and now permanent exile from the game, he still possessed a rare body of precise and hard-won pitching information,” Angell asked Blass to envision himself on the mound, pitching to the mighty Cincinnati Reds. How would he approach each hitter? Well, Blass explained, he’d hope to retire Pete Rose on a slider out of the strike zone, and he’d see what Joe Morgan, the Reds’ hard-hitting second baseman, would make of his “medium-to-slow curveball”; he’d challenge Tony Perez with high heat. When he was throwing well, he didn’t overthink things: “It’s like being plugged into a computer. It’s, ‘Gimme the ball, boom!’” Enabling Blass to revisit this feeling, if just for a moment, was, Bonomo writes, “a large-hearted gesture on the part of Angell.” Angell himself would later describe the fantasy ballgame as “the best idea I ever had as a reporter.”
Inevitably, though, Angell’s most celebrated pieces deal with baseball’s top players and decisive games. His World Series wrap-ups, which would typically appear in the magazine weeks after the end of play, became one of The New Yorker’s beloved staples. His profile of Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson is a revelatory, low-key rebuttal to the simplistic way that the famously intense pitcher was often portrayed in the press. And his piece on a retired Willie Mays is surprisingly moving. Angell is happy to forget the “querulous” fortysomething Mays “who had so clearly stayed too long in the game,” concentrating instead on the graceful young player he once was.
The shift in my feelings was like the change that sometimes comes when we remember a close relative or a friend who has died in old age or after a long illness; suddenly one morning, our sad last view of that person fades away and we are left instead with an earlier and more vivid picture — the one that stay with us. It is a miracle of sorts.
As Bonomo helpfully points out, this piece was published two years after the death of Angell’s mother.
On several occasions, Bonomo isolates interesting threads that cropped up in Angell’s writing across the decades. He notes that Angell, “[a] lifelong amateur sailor off the coast of Maine,” used “maritime figurative language” from the 1970s through the 2010s. In Angell’s argot, a famed stadium is a “grassy old boathouse,” and a befuddled hitter leans “awkwardly to starboard.” Bonomo also keeps close track of Angell’s evolving feelings about night games, new billion-dollar stadiums, and television coverage. The man who once wrote that “the screen offers mostly a prolonged closeup of the home-plate umpire’s neck” would, by the 1990s, concede that the medium had expanded our understanding of the game: “Television has made scouts of us all.”
Meanwhile, Bonomo does a nice job of evoking the pre-internet days when print held sway, explaining how a career like Angell’s was shaped by “fortune and good timing.” Angell started “his career in an era in American history when high-circulation general-interest magazines thrived and the leisure time to read them increased,” Bonomo writes, noting that in Angell’s heyday, a typical New Yorker was 100-plus pages. “[Y]ou just wrote away,” Angell recalls. Today, the magazine’s page count is often in the 70s.
Angell began blogging for The New Yorker in 2008, and in subsequent years he’s won an American Society of Magazine Editors’ award; “This Old Man,” the prizewinning piece, is a beautiful essay about aging and the deaths of his wife and oldest daughter (published in a 2015 collection of his recent work, a nice addendum to his six book-length gatherings of baseball writing). In a 2014 ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame, he received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for those who cover the sport. He might have won the award years earlier, but because he’s never been a beat reporter who followed a team from city to city, some members of the Baseball Writers’ Association “felt I wasn’t the real thing,” Angell says. This insightful book demonstrates how wrong they were.