Review: The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso Print E-mail

manguso_opt(Contrary Magazine July 9, 2012)

Suicides Are Painful

Many who read Sarah Manguso’s first memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), were in awe of the tale and its teller. At twenty-one, Manguso contracted an autoimmune blood disease that grew into nine years’ of transfusions, paralysis, and depression. It seemed the only way she could write about the debilitation was in short chapters, each a high-wire act that combined medical fact, incisive description, and intense but transient emotion. The terse style seemed to be holding back a floodgate.

Much of the same approach structures The Guardians, an ode on the suicide of her college friend and Platonic companion, Harris. Hospitalized three times for bizarre behaviors and depression, Harris was given antipsychotic drugs. It’s theorized that one side effect of those drugs is the rare akathisia, a kind of psychotic restlessness, which intensifies any driven behavior into mania. Escaping from a ward, the thirty-four-year-old wandered all day then leapt in front of a speeding train.

Review: [Sic] by Joshua Cody Print E-mail

sic cody(Punchnels June 15, 2012)

One Maniacally Meandering Memoir

A few years ago, I wrote a book about memoir—not a how-to tract, but a what-happens-when an author writes one, its shocking self-discovery, its redemptive journey, akin to most events in life that change us significantly. I posited a term for a new kind of book that eschews a childhood trauma or mom and dad’s lousy parenting but embraces a just-lived drama: a divorce, a fizzled start-up business, a near-drowning in Lake Michigan. My term, “sudden memoir,” means to unpack a not-yet or nearly over relationship or event whose resolution may come about because you’re making a book about it. The mud of it is the point, especially since your subject is not past, and the book, one hopes, circumvents the mythologizing power, the authoritarian nostalgia of remembrance.

Review: Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie Print E-mail

Ann-Beattie-imagines-Mrs-Nixon(The Rumpus January 30, 2012)

Write What You Don't Know

Had you not read much of Ann Beattie’s fiction—which is the case with me, just a few of The New Yorker stories—and Mrs. Nixon was your introduction to this writer, you’d think, How astonishing: she’s a collagist, an experimenter, formally fearless, analytically daring, animating with this book the most notoriously prudish of all the presidents’ wives, Thelma Catherine Pat Ryan Nixon (1912-1993), wife to Richard, vice-president under Eisenhower in the 1950s and president from 1969 until his ordering the Watergate break-in forced him to resign in 1974. “I am very happy to find myself paired with Mrs. Nixon,” Beattie announces, “a person I would have done anything to avoid—to the extent she was even part of my consciousness. As a writer, though, she interests me. My curiosity is based on how little we share in terms of personality, or upbringing, or what fate has dealt us.” Write what you don’t know.

Review: A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd Print E-mail

violet__vita(Contrary Magazine Winter 2012)

The Self-Avoidant Biographer

English biographer Sir Michael Holroyd has been bit bad by the Bloomsbury bug—that clique of authors who spawned literary modernism in England during and after the Edwardian Age and whose high priesthood included Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry. Holroyd is obsessed with this group as his two continent-sized biographies, Lytton Strachey and the multi-volume Bernard Shaw, attest. Since Bloomsbury history is evidentially fat with letters, novels, diaries, and memoirs, such a record lures sleuths like Holroyd to remix the group’s labyrinth of motives. It’s the hunt he loves, chasing down their unrequited affairs, their aristocratic snuggling, and their benighted books—all writ prodigious—to tell again their scandalous loves and psychological woes.

Review: Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe Print E-mail


bob-dylan(Contrary Magazine Fall 2011)

I Am Large. I Contain Multitudes.

The day after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration fifty years ago Robert Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minnesota, who had rechristened himself Bob Dylan in honor of the Welsh poet, first arrived in New York City. He got off the bus, tramped over to Gerde’s Folk City, and started singing for his supper.  Since then, Dylan’s Methuselah career has presented us with more inscrutability than we can grok—a fact Todd Haynes celebrates and enumerates in his cinematic masterpiece, I’m Not There. It’s fruitless to attach any one mask to Dylan. At 70, he’s had the time, the luck, and the swagger to wear them all: songwriter, poet, painter, filmmaker, film star (0f sorts), singer, and author.

Dylan is a shape-shifter, a premodern postmodernist. He’s legendary and real, the tightrope-walker still plying 100 concert dates a year. His long life lacks a singular narrative. Like Miles Davis, his genius has been to forge a new identity, frame it with a new sound, then abandon it for—or be called by—another turn.

Review: The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson Print E-mail

maggie_nelson(The Rumpus July 11, 2011)

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

Permit me, briefly, a naiveté. Had I thought about art and cruelty together, I would have said, yes, writers, painters, filmmakers depict a good deal of cruelty: Goya, Kafka, Tarantino, not to mention the emotionless airheads puppeteered by novelist Brett Easton Ellis or the one-night pain stands of performance artist Chris Burden, whose most memorable gig was having a friend shoot him in the arm on stage. But since such shock and shudder has such limited appeal (just because a lot of authors write transgressive fiction doesn’t mean they’re being read), I would not have guessed that any critic would insist such acts are artful. Really, there’s more to Less Than Zero than its minimalist deadpan? It seems that cruelty and art risk being too car-wreck enthralling, too Casey-Anthony obsessive.

Review: Otherwise Known As the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer Print E-mail

otherwise_known_as_the_human_condition_-_geoff_dyer(Contrary Magazine Summer 2011)

The Non-Expert Expert

No writer I know occupies as many rooms in the storied compound of arts criticism as Geoff Dyer. In Graywolf’s mix of Dyer’s two British-published anthologies (one in 1999; the other, 2010), the peripatetic author traverses photography, film, music, and literary criticism; he also plumbs the well of the personal essay.

Dyer, who’s written three well-reviewed novels, is a world traveler, autodidact, and essayist. He’s a master of the non-expert essay: self-examining pieces and books that use, among other things, photography, D.H. Lawrence, and the Battle of the Somme as his way in. He’s disciplined and ambitionless, an unrepentant time-waster, avoiding, he says proudly, all hard work. Dyer takes his time discovering—and taking apart—his interests, contrasting invention and analysis in each piece he writes.

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