ferguson-jackson

Darren Wilson Named as Michael Brown Shooter; Photos and Text of Police Report

At a Friday morning press conference, Darren Wilson was named as the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, who was visibly nervous and refused to answer questions from reporters, uttered the name, along with a few sketchy details about Brown being stopped because he was a robbery suspect. Jackson had arrived late, with CNN reporting that he had consulted with legal counsel beforehand. Newsweek‘s Alexander Nazaryan noted that no reason had been offered to reporters for Jackson’s delay. On a FOX 2 raw feed, Jackson was reported hiding behind a van before approaching the mike. And when the time came for the Ferguson Police to distribute the appropriate packets to press, there were not enough to go around. The Ferguson Police Department distributed the first copies to reporters who had filed Sunshine requests. But the police did not provide an online link to the heavily redacted police report.

When Jackson fled from the microphone, several angry voices could be heard over the FOX 2 raw feed, with one unidentified man shouting, “There goes the trust again!”

Huffington Post Justice Reporter Ryan J. Reilly was good enough to take pictures of the press packet on Twitter. I have transcribed the two pages of the heavily redacted report that Reilly uploaded, along with the page of surveillance photos which the police have used to justify the charges against Michael Brown.

Here are the surveillance photos:

michaelbrownpictures

* * *

Here is the first page of the police report that Reilly scanned (and my transcription):

fergusonpolicereport-pageone

Ferguson Police Department
222 S Florissant Road, Ferguson, MO 63135

Officer/Incident Report

Report Date:
08/09/2014 11:51

Type of Incident
ROBBERY (F)
2ND—STRONGARM–CONVENINECE STO

Complaint No.
I4-12388

Case Status:
EXCEPTIONALLY
CLEARED

Supplemental Report:

Supp No.
0001

Date/Time:
8/11/2014 11:31 AM

ID
[Redacted]

Officer Name
[Redacted]

SUPPLEMENT

Pursuant to the original report, the following information is pertinent. On Monday 08/11/2014 @ 0900hrs, I was assigned the investigation.

_________ had come out of the restroom and returned to the counter where she observed Brown tell ____________________, that he (Brown) wanted several boxers of cigars. As ______________ was placing the boxes on the counter, Brown grabbed a box of Swisher Sweet cigars and handed them to Johnson who was standing behind Brown. ________________ witnessed ______________ tell Brown that he had to pay for those cigars first. That is when Brown reached across the counter and grabbed numerous packs of Swisher Sweets and turned to leave the store. ________________ then calls “911”. Meanwhile, ______________ comes out from behind the counter and attempts to stop Brown from leaving. According to _________________, _______________ was trying to lock the door until Brown returned the merchandise to him. That is when Brown grabbed _____________ by the shirt and forcefully pushed him back in a display rack. _________________ backed away and Brown and Johnson exited the store with the cigars.

(Cover Pages Only)

Printed 08/14/2014 1419

* * *

Here is the second page of the police report that Reilly scanned (and my transcription):

fergusonpolicereport-pagetwo

Ferguson Police Department
222 S Florissant Road, Ferguson, MO 63135

Officer/Incident Report

Report Date:
08/09/2014 11:51

Type of Incident
ROBBERY (F)
2ND—STRONGARM–CONVENINECE STO

Complaint No.
I4-12388

Case Status:
EXCEPTIONALLY
CLEARED

I then had the opportunity to review a copy of the video surveillance footage which captured the following events. The date and time stamps correspond to the video footage provided. The entire incident takes place on Saturday, 08/09/2014 between 11:52:58 hrs and 11:54:00 hrs.

Camera 3 – Exterior camera mounted on southwest corner of building, pointed east to record side of building and parking lot.

Camera 6 – Interior camera mounted on ceiling to record entry/exit doors.

Camera 7 – Interior camera mounted on ceiling to record counter/register.

The video reveals Brown enter the store followed by Jackson. Brown approaches the register with Johnson standing behind him. ___________________ can be seen in the background walking from the restroom to behind the counter. Brown hands a box of Swisher Sweets to Johnson. An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown, however it is obscured by a display case on the counter. Meanwhile, Johnson sets the box he was handed back on the counter. Brown turns away from the counter with another box of Swisher Sweet cigars and walks towards the exit door. ____________ then comes out from behind the counter, with what appears to be a set of keys in his hands. ______________ then stands between Brown and the exit door. Brown, still holding a box Swisher Sweets in his right hand, grabs _______________ by his shirt with his left hand. Brown aggressively pulls ________________ in close to him and then immediately pushes him back in to a display rack. Johnson continues out the door and out of camera frame. ______________, no longer between Brown and the door, stops and watches Brown as he walks towards the exit door. Brown then abruptly turns back around and advances on ________________. Brown towers over ______________ appearing to intimidate him. Brown then backs around and walks out of camera view.

It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report # 2014-12391 as well as St. Louis Police Report # 2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department. I responded to that scene and observed Brown. After viewing Brown and reviewing this video, I was able to confirm that Brown is the primary suspect in this incident. A second person, also at that scene, identified himself as being with Brown. That person was later identified as Dorian Johnson. After observing Johnson and reviewing the video I confirmed he is the second suspect in this incident.

A disc containing the 911 call made by ___________________ was obtained from Police Communications.

Reporting Officer

Approving Officer ( I )

[UPDATE: CNN has a PDF of the full police report.]

ferguson2

On Ferguson, Michael Brown, and Sanctioned Murder in America

Michael Brown was murdered by the Ferguson Police Department. There is no other word that can sufficiently describe killing an unarmed man, especially one who didn’t have a criminal record. Witness Dorian Johnson stated that an officer whom the Ferguson Police refuses to identify pointed a gun at Brown’s head instead of containing the situation with a cool head. Brown was executed. The civilians rightfully protested. Now the police fire upon everyone with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The only detail that the police has revealed about the unidentified officer is that he was treated for swelling on the side of his face, but this is a woefully insufficient explanation. Just as instituting a no-fly zone “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ACTIVITIES” is a betrayal of the essential trust needed between police and citizens during a volatile time. Just as the Department of Defense’s militarization of police departments turns jurisdictional resources into a cruel cartoonish joke. Just as police muzzling and arresting veteran reporters like The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery as he was trying to piece together the maelstrom, with the preposterous rap of “resisting arrest” applied to a fair and innocent journalist holding his hands up high and terrified, is a desecration of civility, understanding, and free expression.

Murder. There is no other word to describe what happened to Michael Brown and what is now happening to our essential liberties. Just as there is no other word for what the New York Police Department did to Eric Garner in July; homicide was, after all, what the New York medical examiner concluded.

We wouldn’t have to use the word “murder” if these purported upholders of the law were responsible enough to own up to their mistakes or if our elected officials displayed swift and peremptory leadership. But they can’t. President Obama issues hollow statements. Governor Jay Nixon has displayed gutlessness and incompetence with his unfathomable silence. (Nixon broke his Marcel Marceau routine on late Wednesday night, asking for calm and urging “law enforcement to respect residents & press,” well after the time for conduction had passed.) The baleful mess in Ferguson, Missouri, especially harrowing in this YouTube video showing excessive force on peaceful protesters, has demonstrated that the American system is broken, that we are a nation that refuses to learn from its mistakes and that prefers to remain in denial about its deadliest problems.

We are now at a crucial point in history — one just as important as the epoch before Miranda rights were established — where we must understand that we have the power to say no, to not accept further abuse of police power, and to demand accountability and responsibility from callous ruffians who believe they can get away with sanctioned murder under the “serve and protect” lie. Because if we do not, we will come to take on yet another barbaric regularity of American life, one that an entire generation could grow up accepting without ever knowing another way.

[8/14/14 UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, Governor Nixon pulled the St. Louis Police Department from Ferguson, replacing them with the Missouri Highway Patrol. MHP Captain Ronald Johnson has been overseeing operations with a cool head. Lowery reported that Johnson marched in the largely peaceful protest, with Johnson saying that he will tolerate neither looting nor "citizens not having ability to speak their minds" or having their rights violated. This is a much-needed and exemplary step in the right direction. The question now is whether the bad cops who attacked journalists and protesters will be named and brought to the appropriate justice.]

robinwilliams

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

swornvirgin

On Sworn Virgins and Albanian Tradition

SWORN VIRGIN
by Elvira Dones
Translated by Clarissa Botsford
& Other Stories, 256 pages

He will wear a hat with a tight fit and he will smoke and drink with formidable camaraderie. As zot shtëpie (“head of household”), his devotion to besa, the Albanian word of honor, is so strong that he will fight a bloodfeud to the bitter end. But his commitment to hospitality is just as fierce. He has been known to walk a stranger to the edge of town, ensuring a safe journey. And he may be a “sworn virgin” — a former woman who becomes the male household head in exchange for a vow of chastity, dressing as a man to earn the respect granted to a man, no different from any other zot working in the mountains.

Sworn virgins, who are found mostly in northern Albania, act and carry on as men, but do not undergo any surgical change. In 2000, it was estimated that there were 100 sworn virgins left in Albania. (Stana Cerovic, pictured above, is believed to be the last sworn virgin in Montenegro.) Antonia Young’s incredibly helpful book on the subject, Women Who Become Men, reveals that the vajzë e betuar is often raised to lead a family, with the choice to become patriarch made sometime after puberty. Western fiction readers may know of the custom from Alice Munro’s story, “The Albanian Virgin,” published in the June 27, 1994 issue of The New Yorker. But while the sworn virgin comes with some cultural relativism, especially when considering the subservient role of women in rural Albania, the underlying rites are quite complicated. The bride and the groom do not meet, with flirtation considered a boorish quality for a man. The bride sheds demonstrative tears when she leaves her family home and, as a wife, a woman is expected to perform quite a bit of labor, often more than the man. Custom dictates that a family in northern Albania, which is often as large as twenty members, cannot survive without a male leader. But it is this fascinating sworn virgin loophole, presented in the Kanun, that creates a uniquely Albanian fluidity.

Elvira Dones‘s engaging novel, Sworn Virgin (translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford and regrettably the only Dones novel available in English), not only unpacks these fascinating gender questions, but transplants the issue between two nations. Dones’s protagonist Hana Doda (known as Mark back in Albania) moves to Rockville, Maryland, to land a job and begin a new life. Yet her new country’s demands present an altogether different identity crisis:

On the outside she looks almost like a woman. What’s missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world. When she observes people, Hana does not see a woman or a man. She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyzes their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that these thoughts are inextricably linked to the male or female ego. Women think like women. Men? Well, the answer is obvious. She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.

In the context of an America contending with greater and necessary LGBT acceptance, Hana’s search for “the unique spirit of the individual” is quite liberating. Would Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn feel as “conflicted” about trans models if he weren’t so committed to looking at the world with a regressive parallax view? Is it possible that an exceptional custom originating from tradition is more tolerant on this question than our purportedly democratic republic?

Dones alternates between Hana’s early years in America in 2001-2003 and her time in Albania, in which she becomes a sworn virgin (1986, 1996). We learn that the Albanian epithet malokë (“mountain yokel”) is not unlike “queer” in America: a vicious insult appropriated by its victims as a term of pride. We see that Hana’s family is committed to pretense, with her Uncle Gjergj presented as “an intelligent man but he often pretends that he’s not.” Gjergj is near death. Neither Gjergj nor Hana want to see the medication that goes down his gullet and keeps him alive. There is also the fragile health of Aunt Katrina, which proves more swift and fatal than Gjergj’s. Hana becomes torn in these early years of living life independently and fulfilling her inevitable familial obligation as a patriarch.

When Dones drops us back into Hana’s years in America, we see how swiftly Hana has changed, wondering if it will be easy for her to establish yet another new life. She must contend with shaving her legs and skirts that are too wide and operates having “no real experience of femininity,” and she must figure out the new rules of the game before her job interview. These assiduous concerns help Dones’s novel become more than a fresh spin on the immigrant novel. Is Hana working for a chain bookstore a sufficient substitute for Mark’s dutiful tasks as a shepherd keeping up a kulla (“family home”)? Which nation offers the greater conformity? What technicalities are available in America’s unmemorialized Kanun?

Dones succeeds greatly in devising a kind of Rorschach test around these demarcations. We are left with the consoling thought that no matter how traditional or boundary-breaking one’s temperament is, you can’t stop body and soul from expressing very specific desires on being alive.

prison

Native Sons in Philadelphia: Why We Need More Novelists Like Jean Love Cush

ENDANGERED
by Jean Love Cush
Amistad, 272 pages

There are petulant Caucasians who stretch out their soft, unfettered, and upper middle-class hands for the gluten-free, vegan muffins at their cozy corner bakery when they’re not waiting for the afternoon dacha trip to stave off the high stress of a Tuesday morning hot yoga session. And then there is the rest of America: those who try to make ends meet with a minimum wage job and little more than a high school education, families crowded inside small apartments who go to bed with the nightly reports of gunfire, and young African-Americans who cannot run into a cop without being handed some bogus rap (and, in the case of Eric Garner, killed for wanting to be left alone). One world remains blissfully unaware of the other. The other world must contend with its stories being excised from mainstream culture, even as it must stifle its anger at being marginalized or erased altogether from vital conversations.

One would think that the variegated possibilities of literature would be robust enough to bridge this awful gap, but we have seen whitewashed book covers, YA characters of color doomed to what Christopher Myers refers to as “the apartheid of children’s literature,” bestselling African-American authors told that there is no audience for their work, and racism still lingering in the science fiction world. Yet Jean Love Cush’s Endangered, a powerful work of fiction that, in a more civilized and inclusive world, would be discussed at book clubs and held up in independent bookstores as a vital glimpse inside neglected truths, has been completely ignored by newspapers and abandoned by purportedly enlightened tastemakers fond of uttering the defensive words “Some of my best friends are…” at cocktail parties.

The book, set just after Obama’s inauguration, centers around a fifteen-year-old boy in Philadelphia named Malik Williams who, like any black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, is arrested because he vaguely matches the general description of a homicide suspect. Malik’s mother, Janae, who works as a cafeteria worker, tries to rescue her son between work stints she is barely able to reduce to half-shifts. She cannot afford an attorney who can offer the appropriate defense on her meager salary. The prosecution wishes to try Malik as an adult. Malik’s story is picked up by the media, who wishes to spin his narrative into a fearful vision of cities gripped by violence, complete with armchair academics insisting that trying children as adults is the only way to combat the problem. (On this point and many others, Cush is dead on. It is quite easy to find these specious arguments for “responsibility” if you poke around FOX News.) As Janae becomes a more uncomfortably visible participant in her son’s story, she comes to understand how the media has built a regressive belief culture on racial bias:

As a young girl, she’d come to believe that it was black men who committed all the crimes. They were the ones who were identified in the news stories by the anchors and reporters she’d trusted. Even when a news story left out the racial description, it was easy to fill in the blank and assume the perpetrator was black because of how many other times the bad guy was identified was black. Now, Janae knew that the images she saw on the news, the stories they chose to report on, and even the news angle had more to do with the story the reporter wants to tell or the agenda of the network than a deep-seated passion to get at the truth.

In a nod to Richard Wright’s Boris Max, Cush introduces Roger Whitford, a prominent white human rights attorney who helps Janae with her case. But there is also Calvin Moore, a black attorney who worked his way into a big firm out of the ghetto, blackmailed by one of the partners into becoming involved in the case “that we cannot have any part of because of the potential fallout from it.” Both Whitford and Moore work under the guise of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights, a controversial organization offering the provocative thesis that the Endangered Species Act should be extended to black boys, under the theory that nearly every statistic shows that young blacks are fated to be massacred.

Many of the stats that Cush conveys through her characters can actually be backed up. Last October, The Sentencing Project submitted a harrowing report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, revealing that one in three African American males born today can expect to find themselves in prison at any given time in their lives. The report (PDF) cited black youth’s disproportionate incarceration. Blacks are 16% of all American children, yet make up 28% of juvenile arrests. According to the report, which relied on government statistics and academic scholarship, this unpardonable disparity cannot be pegged solely on poverty and a higher crime rate. Implicit racial bias, predicated upon overworked cops making impulsive decisions and the majority of our nation associating African-Americans with such modifiers as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal,” is also to blame.

So there’s something refreshingly risky and necessary in Cush unpacking her Endangered Species Act premise. In fact, the idea is not unique to Cush. In 2012, D.L. Hughley made a mockumentary (see clip above) in which he lobbied to declare African-Americans an endangered species. In February 2014, Wayne Brady was courageous enough to declare that “the young black man is becoming an endangered species.” Like caustic headlines from The Onion, perhaps these dialogues in comedy and in fiction presage real events.

But the concept also means comparing young African-Americans to animals — a prospect that Janae isn’t especially thrilled about and one that bears uncomfortable resonances to Anthony Cumia’s racist Twitter tirade and 911 operator April Sims’s similarly atavistic sentiments. The suggestion here is that pursuing a severe protective measure for blacks in response to escalating violence could involve playing into the remaining racist sentiments held by those in power.

Endangered is not a perfect book. It is riddled with some undercooked prose (“It was as if fire had darted from her eyes and mouth and singed the hell out of him” and beads of sweat used too often as a shorthand description for tension). But the book crackles with challenging considerations one does not often see in contemporary fiction and is greatly helped by the undeniable momentum of its thrilling story, even if its socially conscious melodrama results in some extraordinary conduct by a judge late in the book. Nevertheless, Endangered is a truer, braver, and more emotional novel than most of the lumpy oatmeal pumped out of the Brooklyn bourgie mill. I would rather read a slightly flawed yet highly visceral book going for broke than another myopic and overly praised entry in the Brooklyn latte genre, and I suspect so would most of America.

skipjames

The Human Value of Cultural Preservation

DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE
by Amanda Petrusich
Scribner, 272 pages

Earlier this year, the journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan revealed an unethical streak by invading the home of blues historian Robert “Mack” McCormick and pilfering photographs and personal items that the octogenerian autodidact had painstakingly acquired over decades and generously shared. McCormick’s health was fragile, but that didn’t stop Sullivan who, with the conquistadoral impulse of Joe McGinniss cracking open William Styron’s special sealed crab meat to make an omelette, happily appropriated McCormick’s findings for a New York Times Magazine cover story.

When outsiders commit such brash invasions under the guise of “journalism,” one tends to hold a certain mistrust towards those working the same territory. But I’m pleased to report that Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price (which comes saddled with a Sullivan blurb) is a more sensitive and fair-minded portrayal of 78 record collectors and blues enthusiasts. Petrusich is kind but keeps her distance. She does not encroach upon or judge her subjects, never painting them as freakish. She heeds their advice and is never condescending, even when they belch in her face.

This courteous approach allows her to unpack bountiful history — such as the rise and fall of Paramount Records, one of the biggest producers of records featuring black performers in the 1920s and the 1930s — and behavioral insight into this winning group of passionate enthusiasts. We get a good sense of how collectors exuberantly grill each other like “two high-achieving middle school students” over recent purchases and learn of the harrowing fog-shrouded drive into the Shenandoah Valley. Because some sessions weren’t recorded at the precise speed of 78 rpm, collectors have adopted such homespun remedies as affixing a Popsicle stick near the needle to get a more lucid and robust playback. We are privy to the common expertise shared between knowledgeable collectors and ethnomusicologists, with both offering theories over whether or not Kid Bailey Brunswick is Willie Brown (“imagine Willie Brown singing toward the top of his range maybe on a day when he wasn’t stirred up by alcohol and rowdy buddies in the studio”). Along the way, Petrusich is candid enough to contend with her own music listening issues as a young critic:

I’d dutifully memorized facts about amplifier settings and pedals and filters and microphones and producers and years of release, even when it felt depressing and hollow, like I was methodically teaching myself exactly how to miss the point.

The vital question of what happens to our brains when we listen to music has been vigorously pursued by Daniel Levitin, but Petrusich’s declaration does lead us wondering about the collector’s temperament. Why do some people become full and rejuvenated when basking in the meticulous details? Is there something about the visceral lawlessness of old time blues that makes them feel music differently? Does collecting or wallowing in the obscure fulfill a human need to master the world, whether as an action of an expression of expertise? Or is it a trap, comparable to Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” where obsessive collection results in inevitable despair or destruction? Petrusich levels, by her own admission, some shaky Asperger’s charges near the end of her book, but her vivacious reporting is better at answering these questions more than any armchair psychoanalysis.

There are fruitless trips to flea markets, a journey to the NYPL Performing Arts branch to explore its 78 collection, and, most exotic, an elaborate scuba diving expedition (complete with Petrusich taking classes) to seek out the potential remains of old records at the bottom of the Milwaukee River, recalling William T. Vollmann’s obsessive search for Mexicali tunnels in Imperial. This vicarious approach shows how the hunt for something esoteric attracts a peculiar yet essential type of person who faces unanticipated responsibilities. Petrusich meets Nathan Salsburg, who helped to salvage the hillbilly 78s of another collector just as they were being dumped, buried in a mess of ketchup and trash, which included a rare recording of a throat-singing cowboy. When Peterusich attempts to wade through this dead collector’s correspondence, she is at a loss to pinpoint the methodology behind his passion. The documents that collectors leave behind may not be sufficient enough to convey the motivations that triggered the pursuit. The burden falls on those who fall in love with the music (or the collecting bug), willing to make the lifelong plunge to keep something appreciated by a diminishing subculture alive.

Much ink is rightfully spilled about Harry Smith, the eccentric filmmaker behind the six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, arguably the playlist to end all playlists. Smith’s grand collection, pulled from his mighty stash of blues and country 78s, represents the clearest example of a collector leaping from formidable obsessive to influential tastemaker. But Petrusich is taken with how Smith’s “face is approximately 80 percent glasses” and how he “appears to be about ten thousand years old.” Who cares for the preservationists and the collectors? They are quietly celebrated for their tastes, but maybe they deserve something louder and more human than mere gratitude. Petrusich’s book is a good start.

thebean

On the Cowardice of Literary Omphaloskepsis

On July 21, 2014, 3:AM Magazine published the second most preposterous essay about books of this year. It was purportedly a review of Shane Jones’s Crystal Eaters, only to turn out to be a non-review that was purportedly about something else, but that was really about the reviewer gazing at his own navel. While the most preposterous essay about books of this year (published less than a month before) went to the trouble of naming names, thereby allowing all who took offense at it to align themselves into factions and swiftly attack the author, the second most preposterous essay about books of this year attacked Roxane Gay and Justin Taylor in the most pusillanimous manner possible — quoting them without naming them. The second most preposterous essay about books of this year cited Gay’s Goodreads review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (offering the additional claim that Gay never read the book), Gay’s response to an AWP questionnaire, and Taylor’s HTML Giant assessment of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel as “a work of startling interiority.” This was not only disrespectful towards Gay and Taylor, but also greatly unhelpful for anyone wanting to piece together the purported literary world that the essay was trying to map and pinpoint. The essay was written by a middling writer named Lee Klein, who spearheaded an online literary magazine called Eyeshot for several years before running out of gas. Klein’s forthcoming novel, The Shimmering Go-Between, which was sent to me out of the blue a few months ago, is not very good. It is not very good, not because I disagree with Klein’s essay or because of any allegiance I may have for Roxane Gay or Justin Taylor, but because it fails to live up to my extremely high literary standards. Klein’s novel exists so firmly in that “not very good” realm that it isn’t even worth discussing at length — especially because it is published by a small press. This is just one man’s opinion.

By quoting people without naming them, Klein immediately establishes himself as a cowardly dick, yet claims later that, in not divulging his opinion about Shane Jones’s novel, he was somehow avoiding being a dick and a wuss:

Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher.

But Lee Klein is fooling himself. His essay was the kind of gutless and dishonest omphaloskepsis (a fancy word for navel gazing, which I serve up because the look of the word makes me very happy and it slyly acknowledges a literary masterpiece, thus representing an altogether different and more benign omphaloskepsis) that does nobody any favors. The author (in this case, Shane Jones) may be left wondering why the reviewer (in this case, Lee Klein) went to all that trouble, further contributing to needless confusion. The reader has no real idea why the reviewer went to all that trouble. The preposterous essay ultimately becomes little more than performance art, one swiftly forgotten in the kudzu of assholes with opinions, possibly discouraging readers from reading anything more from Lee Klein — including the very novel (again, not a very good one) that he has hoped to get people to read in the first place by writing the provocative essay.

Here’s how I heard about Shane Jones. A number of people told me that his latest novel, Crystal Eaters, was quite good. These people had no vested interest to tell me this, other than their considerable passion for good books. Moreover, they told me this in person, not online. Now I have an independent mind that will form its own opinion, as I’m sure that you (the reader) do. I am sure that some of you are disagreeing with what you’re reading right now. But it is also a completely natural impulse to want to get in on something that other people with smart sensibilities are enjoying, unless you are a nihilist who enjoys being miserable. So if Shane Jones’s book was as good as these people were saying, it seemed worth checking out.

On April 20, 2014, I contacted Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio and asked if he could send me a copy. On May 2, 2014, Obenauf got back to me, apologizing for his delay in response (entirely unnecessary, but Obenauf is a total pro) and telling me that he was out of galleys. I thanked Obenauf and told him that if he had any finished copies to spare, I’d be happy to read the book when it was available. The entire exchange was cordial. I knew Obenauf wouldn’t begrudge me if I didn’t get around to reading the book. Obenauf knew that I had been trying to write something about his excellent outfit, Two Dollar Radio, for quite some time and it was really a matter of waiting for the right book to come along, something that would cause my patch of the earth to tremble. Both of us were doing the best we could. A few weeks ago, a finished copy of Crystal Eaters arrived in my mailbox. But I had ten books I had to finish reading first.

That changed this week. When I read Klein’s essay, I realized that I had to put everything else aside and read Shane Jones’s book. Even if I ended up hating Jones’s book, the only possible remedy to Klein’s vulgar rejoinder was to read Crystal Eaters, feel it and think about it, and perhaps forge these thoughts into a carefully considered opinion. It turns out that I like Crystal Eaters a great deal and that Jones is a smart and imaginative writer. And I hope to write a separate essay extolling his book further.

I knew that it was possible to form an opinion without compromising my tastes or my ethics because, at some point within the past year, I read another book published by Two Dollar Radio. The author and I were bandying about the possibility of him appearing on my podcast, The Bat Segundo Show. While I liked the author, the book itself was not to my liking. I didn’t want to express phony enthusiasm for the book, but I also didn’t want to leave the author in the lurch. So I sent him the following email:

First off, my profound apologies in getting back to you later than expected. I have read ___________ in full and, while I enjoyed a chunk of the neglected perspectives you wrote about (with such details as ___________________ and the wry reference to ________________), its narrative approach didn’t congeal with me. I realize that this is part of the point, but I wanted to let the book sit with me for a few weeks before making a final decision.

I have thought about it and, rather than leave you hanging, I’m going to respectfully decline booking a Bat Segundo interview with you at this time. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I do have to trust my instincts on this one. If I’m not completely passionate about the book, then my listeners will know. And that would be a disservice to you. But I do know that several authors have enjoyed your book. Please understand that this is just one man’s taste.

If you like, I would be happy to introduce you to Gil Roth of The Virtual Memories Show. He also reads all the books before talking with his authors and yields very smart insights from this guests. You can check out his show here:

http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/

Please also keep me informed of your future work. There are often authors whose present titles don’t sit with me, but who I end up talking with later on down the line

Again, my apologies that this didn’t work out. Like anyone, I much prefer saying “yes” than “no.” But I hope my respectful candor atones for any disappointment on your part. I do wish you the best.

Thanks and all best,

Ed

The author sent back a gracious reply, fully understanding that his book would divide people. The two of us can run into each other while respecting our literary differences. Should he write a book that lights my Roman candle, I will most certainly be one of the first guys encouraging people to head to the fireworks stand. There is nothing about this that involves me selling out my principles or being a dick or a wuss. I’m constitutionally incapable of talking up a book I don’t love. This is what’s known as developing a failsafe bullshit detector — something that pinged off the charts when I read Klein’s essay.

macdonaldpain

The Journalist and the Murderer (Modern Library Nonfiction #97)

(This is the fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Taming of Chance.)

mlnf97One of the mistakes often made by those who immerse themselves in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is believing that MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is what matters most. But Malcolm is really exploring how journalistic opportunity and impetuous judgment can lead any figure to be roundly condemned in the court of public opinion. Malcolm’s book was written before the Internet blew apart much of the edifice separating advertising and editorial with native advertising and sponsored articles, but this ongoing ethical dilemma matters ever more in our age of social media and citizen journalism, especially when Spike Lee impulsively tweets the wrong address of George Zimmerman (and gets sued because of the resultant harassment) and The New York Post publishes a front page cover of two innocent men (also resulting in a lawsuit) because Reddit happened to believe they were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Yet it is important to approach anything concerning the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case with caution. It has caused at least one documentary filmmaker to go slightly mad. It is an evidential involution that can ensnare even the most disciplined mind, a permanently gravid geyser gushing out books and arguments and arguments about books, with more holes within the relentlessly regenerating mass than the finest mound of Jarlsberg. But here are the underlying facts:

On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald reported a stabbing to the military police. Four officers found MacDonald’s wife Colette, and their two children, Kimberley and Kristen, all dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald went to trial and was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences. Only two months before this conviction, MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss — the author of The Selling of a President 1968, then looking for a comeback — to write a book about the case, under the theory that any money generated by MacDonald’s percentage could be used to sprout a defense fund. MacDonald placed total trust in McGinniss, opening the locks to all his papers and letting him stay in his condominium. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, was published in the spring of 1983. It was a bestseller and spawned a popular television miniseries, largely because MacDonald was portrayed as a narcissist and a sociopath, fitting the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty public. MacDonald didn’t know the full extent of this depiction. Indeed, as he was sitting in jail, McGinniss refused to send him a galley or an advance copy. (“At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advance look at the book six months prior to publication,” wrote McGinniss to MacDonald on February 16, 1983. “As Joe Wambuagh told you in 1975, with him you would not even see a copy before it was published. Same with me. Same with any principled and responsible author.” Malcolm copiously chronicles the “principled and responsible” conduct of McGinniss quite well, which includes speaking with MacDonald in misleading and ingratiating tones, often pretending to be a friend — anything to get MacDonald to talk.)

wallacemacdonald

On 60 Minutes, roughly around the book’s publication, Mike Wallace revealed to MacDonald what McGinniss was up to:

Mike Wallace (narrating): Even government prosecutors couldn’t come up with a motive or an explanation of how a man like MacDonald could have committed so brutal a crime. But Joe McGinniss thinks he’s found the key. New evidence he discovered after the trial. Evidence he has never discussed with MacDonald. A hitherto unrevealed account by the doctor himself of his activities in the period just before the murders.

Joe McGinniss: In his own handwriting, in notes prepared for his own attorneys, he goes into great detail about his consumption of a drug called Eskatrol, which is no longer on the market. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 1980 because of dangerous side effects. Among the side effects of this drug are, when taken to excess by susceptible individuals, temporary psychosis, often manifested as a rage reaction. Here we have somebody under enormous pressure and he’s taking enough of this Eskatrol, enough amphetamines, so that by his own account, he’s lost 15 pounds in the three weeks leading up to the murders.

eskatrolnoteWallace: Now wait. According to the note which I’ve seen, three to five Eskatrol he has taken. We don’t know if he’s taken it over a period of several weeks or if he’s taken three to five Eskatrol a day or a week or a month.

McGinniss: We do know that if you take three to five Eskatrol over a month, you’re not going to lose 15 pounds in doing so.

Jeffrey MacDonald: I never stated that to anyone and I did not in fact lose fifteen pounds. I also wasn’t taking Eskatrol.

Wallace (reading MacDonald’s note): “We ate dinner together at 5:45 PM. It is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember and do not think I had one. But it is possible. I had lost 12 to 15 pounds in the prior three to four weeks in the process, using three to five capsules of Eskatrol Spansule. I was also…”

MacDonald: Three to five capsules for the three weeks.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: Right.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: And that’s a possibility.

Wallace: Then why would you put down here that…that there was even a possibility?

MacDonald: These are notes given to an attorney, who has told me to bare my soul as to any possibility so we could always be prepared. So I…

Wallace: Mhm. But you’ve already told me that you didn’t lose 15 pounds in the three weeks prior…

MacDonald: I don’t think that I did.

Wallace: It’s in your notes. “I had lost 12-15 lbs. in the prior 3-4 weeks, in the process using 3-5 capsules of Eskatrol Spansules.” That’s speed. And compazine. To counteract the excitability of speed. “I was losing weight because I was working out with a boxing team and the coach told me to lose weight.” — 60 Minutes

One of McGinniss’s exclusive contentions was that MacDonald had murdered his family because he was high on Eskatrol. Or, as he wrote in Fatal Vision:

It is also fact that if Jeffrey MacDonald were taking three to five Eskatrol Spansules daily, he would have been consuming 75 mg. of dextroamphetamine — more than enough to precipitate an amphetamine psychosis.

Note the phrasing. Even though McGinniss does not know for a fact whether or not MacDonald took three to five Eskatrol (and MacDonald himself is also uncertain: both MacDonald and McGinniss prevaricate enough to summon the justifiably hot and bothered mesh of Mike Wallace’s grilling), he establishes the possibility as factual — even though it is pure speculation. The prognostication becomes a varnished truth, one that wishes to prop up McGinniss’s melodramatic thesis.

* * *

Malcolm was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson over her depiction of him in her book, In the Freud Archives. In The Journalist and the Murderer, she has called upon all journalists to feel “some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship,” yet claims that her own separate lawsuit was not the driving force in the book’s afterword. Yet even Malcolm, a patient and painstaking practitioner, could not get every detail of MacDonald’s appearance on 60 Minutes right:

As Mike Wallace — who had received an advance copy of Fatal Vision without difficulty or a lecture — read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer, the camera recorded his look of shock and utter discomposure.

Wallace was reading MacDonald’s own notes to his attorney back to him, not McGinniss’s book. These were not McGinniss’s passages in which MacDonald was “portrayed as a psychopathic killer,” but passages from MacDonald’s own words that attempted to establish his Eskatrol use. Did Malcolm have a transcript of the 60 Minutes segment now readily available online in 1990? Or is it possible that MacDonald’s notes to his attorney had fused so perfectly with McGinnis’s book that the two became indistinguishable?

This raises important questions over whether any journalist can ever get the facts entirely right, no matter how fair-minded the intentions. It is one thing to be the hero of one’s own story, but it is quite another to know that, even if she believes herself to be morally or factually in the clear, the journalist is doomed to twist the truth to serve her purposes.

It obviously helps to be transparent about one’s bias. At one point in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm is forthright enough to confess that she is struck by MacDonald’s physical grace as he breaks off pieces of tiny powdered sugar doughnuts. This is the kind of observational detail often inserted in lengthy celebrity profiles to “humanize” a Hollywood actor uttering the same calcified boilerplate rattled off to every roundtable junketeer. But if such a flourish is fluid enough to apply to MacDonald, we are left to wonder how Malcolm’s personal connection interferes with her purported journalistic objectivity. In the same paragraph, Malcolm neatly notes the casual abuse MacDonald received in his mailbox after McGinniss’s book was published — in particular a married couple who read Fatal Vision while on vacation who took the time to write a hateful letter while sunbathing at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. This casual cruelty illustrates how the reader can be just as complicit as the opportunistic journo in perpetuating an incomplete or slanted portrait.

The important conundrum that Malcolm imparts in her short and magnificently complicated volume is why we bother to read or write journalism at all if we know the game is rigged. The thorny morality can extend to biography (Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is another excellent book which sets forth the inherent and surprisingly cyclical bias in writing about Sylvia Plath). And even when the seasoned journalist is aware of ethical discrepancies, the judgmental pangs will still crop up. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (contained in the marvelous collection, Forty-One False Starts), Malcolm confessed her own disappointment in how Ingrid Sischy failed to live up to her preconceptions as a bold and modern woman. Malcolm’s tendentiousness may very well be as incorrigible as McGinnis’s, but is it more forgivable because she’s open about it?

* * *

It can be difficult for Janet Malcolm’s most arduous advocates to detect the fine grains of empathy carefully lining the crisp and meticulous forms of her svelte and careful arguments, which are almost always sanded against venal opportunists. Malcolm’s responsive opponents, which have recently included Esquire‘s Tom Junod, Errol Morris, and other middling men who are inexplicably intimidated by women who are smarter, have attempted to paint Malcolm as a hypocrite, an opportunist, and a self-loathing harpy of the first order. Junod wrote that “it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are animated by malice than Janet Malcolm” and described her work as “a self-hater whose work has managed to speak for the self-hatred” of journalism. Yet Junod cannot cite any examples of this self-hate and malice, save for the purported Henry Youngman-like sting of her one liners (Malcolm is not James Wolcott; she is considerably more thoughtful and interesting) and for pointing out, in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, how trials “offer unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness,” failing to observe how Malcolm pointed out how words or evidence lifted out of context could be used to condemn or besmirch the innocent until proven guilty (and owning up to her own biases and her desire to interfere).

Malcolm is not as relentless as her generational peer Renata Adler, but she is just as refreshingly formidable. She is as thorough with her positions and almost as misunderstood. She has made many prominent enemies for her controversial positions — even fighting a ten year trial against Jeffrey Masson over the authenticity of his quotations (dismissed initially by a federal judge in California on the grounds that there was an absence of malice). Adler was ousted from The New Yorker, but Malcolm was not. In the last few years, both have rightfully found renewed attention for their years among a new generation.

One origin for the anti-Malcolm assault is John Taylor’s 1989 New York Magazine article, “Holier than Thou,” which is perhaps singularly responsible for making it mandatory for any mention of The Journalist and the Murderer to include its infamous opening line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Taylor excoriated Malcolm for betraying McGinniss as a subject, dredged up the Masson claims, and claimed that Malcolm used Masson much as McGinniss had used MacDonald. It does not occur to Taylor that Malcolm herself may be thoroughly familiar with what went down and that the two lengthy articles which became The Journalist and the Murderer might indeed be an attempt to reckon with the events that caused the fracas:

Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert said of his famous character. The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.

Similarly, Evan Hughes had difficulty grappling with this idea, caviling over the “bizarre stance” of Malcolm not wanting to be “oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.” He falsely infers that Malcolm has claimed that “it is pointless to learn the facts to try to get to the bottom of a crime,” not parsing Malcolm’s clear distinction between evidence and the journalist’s ineluctable need to realize characters on the page. No matter how faithfully the journalist sticks with the facts, a journalistic subject becomes a character because the narrative exigencies demand it. Errol Morris can find Malcolm’s stance “disturbing and problematic” as much as he likes, but he is the one who violated the journalistic taboo of paying subjects for his 2008 film, Standard Operating Procedure, without full disclosure. One of Morris’s documentary subjects, Joyce McKinney, claimed that she was tricked into giving an interview for what became Tabloid, alleging that one of Morris’s co-producers broke into her home with a release form. Years before Morris proved triumphant in an appellate court, he tweeted:

The notion of something “unvarnished” attached to a personal account may have originated with Shakespeare:

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic—
For such proceeding I am charged withal—
I won his daughter.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Othello hoped that in telling “a round unvarnished tale,” he would be able to come clean with Brabantio over why he had eloped with the senator’s daughter Desdemona. He wishes to be straightforward. It’s an extremely honorable and heartfelt gesture that has us very much believing in Othello’s eloquence. Othello was very lucky not to be speaking with a journalist, who surely would have used his words against him.

Next Up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood!

Robin Black

Robin Black’s Parable of the Old and the Young

LIFE DRAWING
by Robin Black
Random House, 256 pages

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
– Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”

James Joyce’s remarkable coolness towards the First World War while writing Ulysses has been observed by many, and that century-old dilemma of how to depict quotidian complexities in a time of international turmoil is something of a wry undercurrent in Robin Black’s sharply observed novel, Life Drawing. Between Black’s novel and Clare Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, characters named Nora are swiftly becoming the literary answer to NORAD, revealing cold domestic wars nearly as underestimated in their body count as some matter in the Balkans that will be surely resolved by Christmas. More on Nora in a bit.

The book’s 47-year-old protagonist, Augusta, is known as “Gus” by her husband Owen — a teacher and writer whose birthday is strongly insinuated as Bloomsday — and “Augie” by everyone else. That nickname disconnect should tell you everything about this quietly fraught marriage. Augie neither bellows nor marches, at least not at the beginning, but she does spoon out parts of her life in small details. We learn she is an artist of some kind, yet she is diffident about the projects she has painted. Augie is Jewish, but this revelation arrives almost as a perfunctory confessional aside, some hint at the iceberg hidden beneath the water. This approach not only keeps us curious, but tells us that Augie is hiding something: not dirty laundry, but an inner turmoil erected upon decisions over matters it may be too late to clear up.

Augie and Owen have fled the Philadelphia art scene for a new life and bucolic rejuvenation at a farmhouse built in 1918: in part to escape the hurtful residue of an affair Augie had and halted. This deceit is the first of many stings and untruths to come. When Augie finds a stack of newspapers used a century before to insulate the walls, the brutal reports and dead ancestors spilling from these yellowed column-inches serve as rocky and uncertain inspiration (“Why? I didn’t know why. I’d stopped thinking sensibly — which is not how projects usually begin for me.”). For Augie, making art becomes a strange, seemingly liberating narcotic, a curious, ego-flexing gauze to throw over the more important gaze you need to direct at the world. (We learn later, when an unexpected muse arrives, that Owen’s writing is driven by the same impulse. Scrupulous character strokes like this allow us to understand that, even though these two are wrong for each other, they are nevertheless bound by the same beguiling temperament. Late in the book, a gripping and circumlocutory chat in a car offers the best case against trying to work out a marital catastrophe without a couples therapist that I am likely to read in a novel this year.) Black introduces a new neighbor named Alison, who has temporarily rented an adjacent house after retreating from an abusive husband. “I am big on fresh starts,” says Alison not long after meeting Augie, “Second chances. Third, if necessary.” It’s clear from this intensity that Alison needs any soul to help her get back on her feet, yet Augie cannot detect this. They form an ephemeral bond over trips to the farmer’s market and regular visits.

There are big reasons why Augie is friendless and exiled in the country. She’s still emailing with Laine, the daughter of the man she had an affair with, offering her pointers on how to be a painter and she hasn’t told her husband about this. Alison has her own art, and, while it is more macroscopic in nature, it’s driven by a vivid fluidity that Augie can’t find with the dead soldiers she’s resurrecting by paint. And then there’s Nora, Alison’s daughter, who becomes smitten with Owen and who understandably takes up more of Alison’s time. Augie turns jealous and judgmental, and this is where matters turn nasty:

Yes, she was self-absorbed, but now that she had relaxed, it seemed less as through that were the result of ego and instead entirely appropriate for a young woman excited about her life and also excited to have met someone to idolize. She was a bit short on boundaries, but to be otherwise at twenty-two might have been off-putting in its own way.

We begin to see that, while Augie distinguishes characteristics between the old and the young, she can’t discern the same clawing and childish qualities inside herself. Moreover, Augie cannot understand that the young generation now lives in an environment in which every private action becomes public (and, strangely enough, the willful exposure of private confidences is quite similar to what ultimately befalls Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs). Black’s careful juxtapositions not only reveal Augie’s desperate longing for a motherhood she never decided upon, but show how her desperate drift to art is part of the same reason she cannot see the frailty and beauty of people.

The book continues the fearless interior probing into a middle-aged woman’s life that we saw last year with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Both Life Drawing and The Woman Upstairs feature protagonists who disguise their fury at making terrible life choices with furious painting. Yet both arrive at their jolting revelations from altogether different trajectories. It remains anyone’s guess whether Black, like Messud, will suffer the indignity of having to defend the “unlikable character” rap. But Black’s work is just as important.

Black garnered justifiable acclaim for her excellent short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. (If you have 53 minutes, I interviewed her in 2010. There is also a wonderful interview by Anna Clark at The American Prospect that considers the politics of complicated heroines.) What made Black’s stories sing was her willingness to depict the inner lives of older women, who are often overlooked in fiction, without resorting to explicit metaphors. In Life Drawing, she builds off this promise beautifully, creating the kind of harrowing fiction that causes any reader — man or woman, older or younger, artist or non-artist — to take a hard, necessary, and emotional look in the mirror.

luiselli

The Liminal Landscape of Valeria Luiselli

FACES IN THE CROWD
by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press, 154 pages

SIDEWALKS
by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press, 120 pages

On February 9, 1994, the Surrealist poet Gherasim Luca threw himself off a bridge. He was eighty years old and had lived in Paris for forty-two years without padding his pockets with the appropriate government papers. Shocked scholars searching for insights into Luca’s suicide have scoured through his book La Mort morte, seeing the five fictitious suicide attempts and fabulated notes that Luca composed in the mid-1940s as the psychoanalytic smoking gun revealing his dark and inexorable trajectory.

But in her essay “Stuttering Cities,” the perspicacious young writer Valeria Luiselli doesn’t view Luca through that cheap preordained lens. She has looked to Luca’s “Passionnément” — a staccato poem powered by a bilabial stutter that is strangely pleasurable if you listen to it (or you have the guts to recite it, which I recommend even if your French is atrocious), and sees the insight not so much in the mood, but the sputtering expression. For Luiselli, it is that liminal space between the words (“pas pas paspaspas pas”) that reveals the human, uncovering territory closely tied in feel and form to a baby joyfully exclaiming “mama” or “papa” for the first time, anchoring us to some lifelong continuity, and becoming the ultimate measure of the silence we all endure to some degree while occupying this planet. If Luca’s poem represents (as Luiselli sees it) “the downward plunge of language toward that silence,” then the liminal landscape of words and cities (or those unbridged stretches on the Seine) may be the ideal place to direct our empathy and our attentions.

Coffee House Press, a marvelous independent publisher that we are all quite fortunate to have parceling out these slim and thrilling volumes, has recently issued two of Luiselli’s books, both translated by Christina MacSweeney: Faces in the Crowd, a novel, and the essay collection, Sidewalks. Luiselli’s fascinating novel is quite occupied with the hidden pauses between paragraphs, which bristle in the text with the cillia-burning relief of a fresh cigarette staving off a narcotic need that will inevitably return. (Luiselli is a smoker and, in her essay “Other Rooms,” she observes how sharing cigarettes with a night-shift doorman is not only a great way to strike up friendship that is somewhat defiant of life’s dogged patterns, but a way to get to know yourself better.)

Faces in the Crowd is very much a cousin to Jenny Offill’s excellent novel, Dept. of Speculation, in the way that it coaxes the reader to fixate on the asterisks between the short sections. That approach pushes the reader forward in the slipstream flow of an unnamed woman who has worked as a translator, encountered professional disgrace, and may be permanently closing the door on her husband and kids (Luiselli is quite attentive to demonstratives and the degree to which her protagonist utters “this” or “that” contains multitudes). This is quite amazing! She becomes so obsessed with this poet Gilberto Owen that she not only fabricates a professed translation and his photograph, but assumes his identity, almost willing herself into a liminal space between fiction and nonfiction (and if you get your hands on both books, there’s a heavenly, head-tingling, overhead tension between Luiselli’s fiction and nonfiction that is also worth experiencing!), one that reinforces this translator’s declaration on what the text we’re readying really is: “Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.”

By now, just about every literary person has been forced to contend in some way with the first half of that six book, 3,600 page, Norwegian confessional sprawl professing to be the 21st century answer to Proust. But text that persuades us to slow down and examine our zealous reading obligations, whether print or digital, is becoming increasingly rare. We are ever more in need of it in this epoch where social media hopes to plunder what remains of the private, uncastigated life. In “Other Rooms,” Luiselli speaks to the impossibility “for anyone to commit a spectacular crime in his living room or to conduct a good affair (dirty, delectable, and detectable).” Liminal obliquity may be the only safeguard we have against such developments. Fiction is fated to increasingly address the surveillance state and its willing smartphone-entranced executioners. Novels that compel us to question our reliance on a landscape artificially punctuated by alerts and notifications could break us out of these reluctant habits.

Some of Luiselli’s subtleties may be lost in translation or carefully engineered to protect the reader from falling into obsessive traps. There is an editor named White who emerges in Faces in the Crowd. The translator hopes to persuade White to publish Owen. Ruminating upon the blanks between spaces, I was tempted to envisage him as Blanco in Spanish, even though he is established as a gringo (and let us not forget that gringo‘s etymology originates with one who cannot speak Castilian fluently or naturally), especially when White leaves a note to the translator: “Bring me something that really can be translated into English.” But would such an inference cause me to become obsessed with an altogether different white whale? Luiselli includes a rare book printer named Moby, whose bailiwick is publishing “Ohio poets of the twenties and thirties,” no matter how mediocre. If this novel is not fragmented, as its protagonist promises, why does it swim towards the driftwood of broken books and forgotten poets?

Near the end of Faces in the Crowd, the protagonist confesses:

I haven’t talked to my husband for over a week….I sense him getting into the bed. He smells bad. He smells of the street, restaurant. He smells of people.

Throughout the novel, in an almost inverted Lautréamont narrative approach, we witness this husband peering over the translator’s manuscript in progress — the very book we’re reading — offering joy, repellence, suspicion, and regrets. Eventually, the husband abandons his vicarious interest. The translator has abandoned her real husband, an architect who designs variations of the same house all over the world, for the Owen-like poet within her mind, a lonely ghost drifting over the landscape of books and cities. One of the reasons that Gherasim Luca killed himself was because the Parisian authorities expelled him from his apartment for “hygiene reasons.” There’s good reason to see the translator’s husband as a Luca offshoot or possibly some human answer to a Vico cycle (“Pa-pa, says the baby,” writes the translator late in Faces in the Crowd, calling back to Luca’s “Passionnément”). Maybe true freedom and happiness emerges from seeing the world as a liminal landscape in which the only points that matter are our first words and our last.