Month: February 2022


In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise the protagonist and narrator, Jack Galdney, finds himself struggling to get a straight answer from his precocious teenage son, Heinrich.

“It’s going to rain tonight.”
“It’s raining now,” I said.
“The radio said tonight.”

“Look at the windshield,” I said. “Is that rain or isn’t it?”
“I’m only telling you what they said.”
“Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”
“Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There’s no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean it’s not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I’m sure there are sounds even dogs can’t hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere.”
“Is it raining,” I said, “or isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t want to have to say.”
“What if someone held a gun to your head?”

The exchange is as infuriating as it is amusing and you can’t help but wonder where your sympathies should lie. On the one hand Heinrich is deploying tendentious po-mo deconstruction. Yet his father is a professor at the town’s liberal arts college where he founded the academic field of Hitler Studies, created in service of academic advancement, providing a stage for his own po-mo preoccupations.

I couldn’t help but think of White Noise as I recently read Joy Williams’ Harrow. If you put a gun to my head and told me to describe the book I’d say it reads like White Noise meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Describing the actual plot of Harrow makes describing the plot of White Noise seem easy. If there is a central conceit to the novel it is that there has been some kind of global environmental catastrophe — the titular “Harrow” — the details of which are only ever alluded to and described indirectly. The situation is stated most clearly towards the end of the novel.

Bouncing back from such historical earth-caused losses, humankind had become more frightened and ruthless than ever. Nature had been deemed sociopathic and if you found this position debatable you were deemed sociopathic as well and there were novel and increasingly effective ways of dealing with you.

None of this really reflects the nature of what awaits a reader in the book. So I will try again. We follow a teenager Khristen who is sent off to a mysterious school for gifted children, until “the Harrow” causes the school to be swiftly shuttered. Khristen goes in search of her mother and arrives instead at The Institute: a kind of eco-terrorist training camp for geriatrics who have decided to dedicate what remains of their lives to coordinated acts of revenge against the people who inflicted so much cruelty and damage on the natural world. Khristen eventually leaves the institute and in the final portions of the novel arrives in the bizarre courtroom of a twelve-year-old judge. I’ve skipped a great deal, but hopefully you get a sense of how resistant the book is to any kind of conventional narrative arc.

I might as well divulge another central conceit of the novel: Khristen’s mother holds the firm conviction that Khristen had briefly died and returned to life when she was a baby. None of the witnesses to the incident or the doctors who examined the child believe this happened. The baby just appeared to have momentarily stopped breathing. Yet this non-incident is returned and treated like it should hold a great deal of resonance. Later on there is much discussion of Kafka’s short story The Hunter Gracchus, which is obviously great fun if, like me, you’ve never read that particular story. But I am led to believe Gracchus’ own un-dead predicament should resonate with Khristen’s.

I should say that Joy Williams is very highly regarded as a writer and you can find plenty of evidence on the page of her skill as a prose stylist. Even if I spent most of the book waiting for it all to accumulate in some or any way, the scenes are nevertheless wildly inventive and individual lines can haunt you:

The fish was not rose-mole stippled and lovely but gray and gaunt as though it had lived its brief life in a drainpipe.

The poetic beauty of the initial description contrast powerfully with the bleak point at which the sentence ends. It is a knight’s move of a sentence, shifting trajectory somewhere along the way. A quick google search reveals that this “rose-mole stippled” business is lifted from a nature poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Which is all to say that there is a lot going on if you look carefully.

But is Harrow actually a good novel? I cannot help myself but channel the spirit of Heinrich Gladney:
“Do you think Harrow was good?”
“In what sense good? Good to all readers in all times and in all circumstances? Good on a first reading or on a rereading? Perhaps you want me to give an Amazon star rating, because to that I must outright object on aesthetic grounds.”
“How about to you, today, when you read it.”
“I feel like any serious art inevitably provokes complicated sets of emotions in me that resist easy reduction.”
“So you did not enjoy it?”
“‘Enjoy’ is too narrow a term to capture whatever virtues the artists was aiming for. I feel like giving a straight answer would serve to do nothing more that to open me up to being accused of exhibiting a lack of literary sophistication.”
“Sounds like you are afraid that the book was good but that you were not able to appreciate it fully. Which would be awkward because lots of other people said it was great. Kirkus named it 2021’s best.”
“I certainly managed to appreciate some of it.”

If you want a more insightful critical rundown of Harrow, and Joy Williams oeuvre more generally, then I suggest Katy Waldman’s piece for the New Yorker.


As an undergraduate, I was prone to wandering the university library, looking to some kind of literary distraction from whatever math assignment I was suffering to complete. One day pulled a worn paperback copy of Sexual Politics by Kate Millett off the shelf. It was not a book I had ever been assigned or recommended. I had no understanding or conception of what it might contain, aside from the vague possibility of feminism. But the title seemed provocative enough, so I read a few pages to get a sense. It was polemical and read like a response to an ongoing conversation that I was not party to. There was an account of the notorious and horrifying evening when Norman Mailer stabbed his then wife with a penknife. But as horrifying as that was to read, I had no idea who Norman Mailer was. (I later discovered that I had read maybe fifty pages of his biography of Lee Harvey Oswald while in high school before discarding it; I had been hoping for conspiratorial speculation).

What did capture my imagination, was the marginalia on the opening page of the text. As I recall, someone had taken issue with the author’s use of the default male pronoun, as if that was enough to discredit and undermine the integrity of all that followed. I did not get the impression that this was done from a viewpoint sympathetic to feminism, and was a very bold assertion to make so early on in the reading. This is what scholars term “hostile” marginalia.

From this initial salvo followed a whole chain of pencilled and biro-ed interjections and objections from subsequent readers, although who knows how much further than the opening paragraphs any of them made it through the text. In content alone, this was little better than the below-the-line comments that have become ubiquitous online. And to be fair, much worse than most of what in the tech space is called user generated content. But it felt fun and exciting to read for a few obvious reasons. The first being the irreverence of writing in the book itself. The second being the simple aesthetic appeal of seeing the back and forth written out in people’s own hand.

Much has been written about marginalia and its virtues. The rise of the e-reader was occasion for much thinking about what might be lost in a transition to digital. Sam Anderson, who has written much on the subject, writes here from the point of view of a practitioner (as opposed to my own as the voyeur):

One day in college I was trawling the library for a good book to read when I found a book called “How to Read a Book.” I tried to read it, but must have been doing something wrong, because it struck me as old-fashioned and dull, and I could get through only a tiny chunk of it. That chunk, however, contained a statement that changed my reading life forever. The author argued that you didn’t truly own a book (spiritually, intellectually) until you had marked it up.

This hit home for me — it spoke to the little scribal monk who lives deep in the scriptorium of my soul — and I quickly adopted the habit of marginalia: underlining memorable lines, writing keywords in blank spaces, jotting important page numbers inside of back covers.

[…] Soon my little habit progressed into a full-on dependency. My markings grew more elaborate — I made stars, circles, checks, brackets, parentheses, boxes, dots and lines (straight, curved and jagged). I noted intra- and extratextual references; I measured cadences with stress marks. Texts that really grabbed me got full-blown essays (sideways, upside-down, diagonal) in the margins. I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning. Today I rarely read anything — book, magazine, newspaper — without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is — no exaggeration — possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.

This belongs to a genre of advocacy for marginalia: looking to transforming passive readers into pencil wielding intellectuals deploying their critical judgements, droll asides, and tasteful underlinings. A closely related genre is more in my own voyeuristic camp, inspecting the great marginalia of the past. To my mind, the most significant marginalia lies in scientific discourse. An example: the journalist Arthur Koestler once dismissively referred to Copernicus’ On The Revolution as “the book that nobody read”, in his history of cosmology. In response Owen Gingrich titled a book with the offending quote as the title, in which he described his efforts to examine all surviving copies of On The Revolution from the 16th century. In the margins of these copies he found copious evidence that Copernicus’ opus was read very carefully indeed. Indeed, if you were to break into the offices of likely any practicing mathematician you will find preprints, with very wide margins, covered in scribbles testifying to the continuing engagement with tricky mathematical texts.

Back in the literary sphere the current king of marginalia has to be David Foster Wallace. While his posthumous reputation as a secular saint has been shattered, Infinite Jest continues to attract devoted readers. His personal library has entered the collection of the Ransom Center, and we’ve all been able to peer at the scans of the paperbacks he extensively and idiosyncratically annotated. More than anything else, these particular images illustrate else the purely aesthetic and textural appeal of marginalia.

But all of this commentary, to my mind, hasn’t acknowledged a more obvious truth about reader engagement with the printed word. Engagement is not always welcome, wanted, or virtuous. We do not tickled by the puerile and often hateful graffiti to be found in any high school textbook in the same way we are when we discover DFW added galsses, fangs, and a mustache to DeLillo’s author photo. Nor do we treat the posts of an unmasked sock puppet account as being worthy of the same respect as the abuse that the “great artist” leaves in the margins of their private library.

The digital age has transformed marginalia into a public performance, and if you abandon the fixation on the codex itself (to my money, still a robust and preferable reading technology) you can find much engagement and innovation, but frequently not among the artists we admire, valorize, and maybe aspire to.

“Fisking” is the practice of taking a text that you find particularly egregious and writing a rebuttal by quoting the text, likely in its entirety interspersed in-line with your debunking, criticism, and abuse. It takes its name from the British journalist whose reports from the Middle East were an early and frequent target of the conservative bloggers who pioneered this innovation. Whatever its roots, it is the logical digital evolution of hostile marginalia. What shifted the paradigm was the ability to instantly copy, paste, and then start writing the commentary. It’s the kind of thing that happens when there are no editors around and your audience seems to appreciate open insults.

The term still gets used, but mostly in conservative circles. There used to be a Wikipedia page that subsequently got removed. Fisk’s Wikipedia page used to mention it, but no longer. There is a dictionary definition, at least. Fisking does not have the same champions as marginalia. Nor the same caliber of practitioner. It also has to be said that the people who coined the term may not have appreciated all the possible associations the term might conjure.

Pile ons, ratios, and dunkings are nothing more than hostile marginalia done in public, en mass. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and certain things are better done in the privacy of one’s own home. Editors offer a valuable service, and writing is often the process of working out what you think, rather than just responding in the moment. What can be an exciting insight into someones inner life — their unfiltered response as they read a novel — maybe shouldn’t become a model for public discourse. What made those glimpses so interesting, was how fleeting and how precious they could be. And let’s not over-think the thrill of seeing what a writer’s actual handwriting was like.

Doodling Dan Doodle

A “serious writer” might not like to think of themselves as being in the business of children’s entertainment. Yet our most profound reading experiences frequently occur when we are young. In my own experience, there was a powerful frisson, not easily replicated, in reading a book or comic that strayed into some new and adult territory that had, up until that point, remained uncharted. These readings were engaging in ways that they could never be again, especially when returned to as an adult.

For a long time — to my mortal frustration — I browsed my local library’s limited offerings of comic books and repeatedly passed over Niel Gaiman’s Sandman. Even when I learned that these were critically acclaimed the artwork remained, to my eyes, far removed from what I was looking for in a comic. (Conversely, I browsed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, felt the immediate need to read it). When I finally read Sandman (or at least the collected editions in the school library), I found the stories powerful in an unexpected way. Even the once off putting art offered something new. But much of this effect was lost as an adult when I started reading the entire series from start to finish.

It is perplexing to me that more writers and artists do not aspire to have their works read by such audiences. Yet at the very same time, it is clear that many are are trying to recreate that same quality of wonder for an adult audience, with confounding results. I don’t know how else to explain the DC Snyderverse, Disney’s Star Wars reboot, or modern Dr Who, other than as adults trying to recreate what they experienced as teenagers in comics, cinemas, or TV.

Comics are a particularly interesting, in terms of their actual readership, because the situation is in fact very different that you might expect. To judge on the strength of sales figures and the implied readership, the modern (American/English language) comic book industry is not dominated by Marvel and DC superhero comics. While tent-pole superhero movies are dominant in the cinemas, their star has fallen in their native medium. The most widely read comic books are graphic novels are written, marketed, sold, and almost exclusively read by a young adult audience.

Sales figures for books are notoriously difficult to measure; there are many different kinds of sales, including the direct market and digital. There is also something almost political about the way best-sellers are measured, with The New York Times even having its own secret source metric for producing its own best-seller lists. But this article from 2021 on graphic novel sales, for all its caveats, makes a good case for the overall picture. Scholastic and Viz are the biggest graphic novel publishers. Viz, contrary to all received wisdom about English speaking audience’s disinterest in fiction in translation, has no problem selling Manga to young people. Scholastic sells young adult books to school kids, often directly, within schools themselves via their book-fairs.

Depending on your exact definitions of intended audiences, it appears that each and every one of the top 20 is intended for children or middle readers. It won’t be until #22 that you can find a comic intended for a different audience ( “Strange Planet”, a collection of webcomics), and if you are looking for a “Marvel / DC-style” comic, you are not even in the top fifty. “Watchmen” finally shows up at #57 – after that the next aimed-at-adults superhero comic is “Harleen” way the heck down at #144. The earliest Manga in the charts are “My Hero Academia” at #18, the first one aimed at adults would appear to be… well, depends who you ask? I tend to think that “Demon Slayer Kimetsu No Yaiba” (#33) is probably rated “T”, so next after that would be Ito’s “Uzumaki” at #34.

The true titan of Scholastic’s graphic novel output is Raina Telgemeier whose autobiographical opus Smile covered her high school experience when she underwent dental reconstruction after an accident.
I first heard about her work here:

The New York Times has a good profile in which you can even see the process by which she writes, pencils, and inks her comics.

“Raina single-handedly created the market for middle-grade graphic memoir,” said Saylor, who is now the publisher of Graphix. “There was a common trope at the time that girls didn’t read comics and that was a boy thing, so the market wasn’t catering to girls and women.”

For my part I have recently made my own amateur foray into (very young) children’s books. In honour of my nephew’s birthday I wrote my own knock-off Mr Men book. It’s the first comic I have drawn in many years, and the first that I have done entirely digitally (using a very basic wacom tablet). Like they always say, it is not as easy as it looks. My big takeaway is a reminder of how much of the creative process is work. I suspect I broke a fair number of the rules for writing for children. Some things make complete sense to children and little sense to adults. It is hard to know what will capture an imagination.

Old New Yorkers

Subscribing to the New Yorker can feel like being caught in the classic bind: having your wish granted, only to discover your wish is a curse. The curse in this case being that my New Yorkers pile up and I realize that I will never have the time to them all. I don’t even read them cover to cover. I skip the Goings On About Town; I only recently began to occasionally read a poem; I’m not sold on the Talk of the Town; and I rarely bother with the music, film, and TV critics because I don’t consume nearly enough of those three to make it worth my time. (Although the TV critic Naomi Fry is worth following on Twitter).

I started subscribing almost two years ago; an early pandemic decision justified to myself in part as a show of solidarity with the journalistic class. I intended to write out here a list of articles that I particularly enjoyed over that time, but the commentary grew, so I’m only presenting a handful.

Most of my physical New Yorkers are back in the UK, so I was only able to peruse the contents of the more modest stack that has grown since I finally made the move over the Atlantic. Even so, as I bookmarked articles that I had enjoyed, I noticed just as many that I had missed and fancied going back and reading.

How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands by Larissa Farquhar

There had been a great deal said about clear and concise writing, with Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English language is often brought up. It is pretty easy to accuse a writer of producing tortured sentences or old fashioned overwriting. But to my mind the real skill in writing is in discovering an interesting way of saying whatever it is that you hope to say. And “hope” really is the appropriate verb; even when you have clear sense of what you are trying to say, actually making it appear on the page is frequently, in my experience at least, the business of multiple revisions.

For a hundred and fifty years, when the Falkland Islands were a distant outpost of the British Empire, many men came from the Scottish Highlands to work as shepherds, and the islands are oddly similar to the Shetlands or the Isle of Skye—the bleak, rocky landscape; the blustery rain; the nearness of the sea—as though a piece of Scotland had broken off into the Atlantic and drifted eight thousand miles south, past Ireland, then Portugal, past Morocco and Mauritania and Senegal, down past the coasts of Brazil and Uruguay, and come to rest just a few hundred miles north of Antarctica. But here, on days when the air is very sharp and clear, people know that a floating iceberg must be close. And here there are penguins at the water’s edge: three-foot king penguins with egg-yolk bibs; squat rockhopper penguins with spiky black head feathers like gelled hair; whimsy-hatted gentoos. In March, as the plague was circling, the penguins had nothing to do. They were molting, so they couldn’t swim or eat. Molting, people said, was tiring and uncomfortable. The penguins stood about in crowds near the surf, backs to the wind, waiting for their feathers to fall out.

The whole article is extremely quotable, and it is easy to look at any given paragraph and feel like it captures the power of the whole piece. Of course, you keep on reading, and finding new paragraphs so it is easy to miss the cumulative effect. With non-fiction you can look for the seams: the facts, the quotes, all the raw material that the journalist turned up and then had to synthesize to arrive at the sentences that were eventually printed. When the writing is really good you begin to wonder if it was all just laid out like that by a particularly erudite source. Or maybe just the Holy Spirit. How else would you explain it?

For the first twenty years that Tim Blake was at Hill Cove, from the late fifties to the late seventies, the farm, like the other farms in the Falklands, was run on a system that had progressively been outlawed in Britain by legislation, the Truck Acts, which stretched back to the fifteenth century. The farmworkers rarely handled cash: they were paid in scrip, and had a credit account at the farm store in the settlement. At the end of the year, the farm manager would tell them how much money they had left after subtracting their purchases; he would pay their taxes for them and deposit what remained into a government savings account, or help them invest it. The manager might be the only local authority—he conducted marriages and assigned punishments; it was said that not long before Tim Blake came to Hill Cove a man there was fired for whistling. Because drinking could be a problem, especially in winter, when there wasn’t much to do, the farm store rationed sales of alcohol. When a man grew too old for farmwork, he had to retire, which meant that he had to leave his house on the farm and move to Stanley. But there was little for retired men to do in Stanley except go to the pub, and they often died soon afterward.

I found this article to be an impressive work of social history, taking what might seem to be an unremarkable subject, and making it into the most remarkable reading experience. If there hasn’t already been, there needs to be a serious study of American coverage of British affairs. There is no clearer indication of domestic deficiencies of a national media, than a keen outside eye.

Britain’s Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker History by Sam Knight

I grew up being taken to English Country Houses — which I was largely bored and indifferent to, at least as a child. They would typically boast a fancy garden, a cafe, with a bit of history on the side. The instigating incident of Knight’s article, is the arrival of a relatively unusual tour group, consisting of mostly “older Carribbean women” to Dyrham Park, the quintessential English country house. This group was relatively unusual in that visitors to England’s country houses have been overwhelmingly white, and the tour, organised by a pair of filmmakers and researchers, Shawn Sobers and Rob Mitchell, was part of a larger effort to change that. But they weren’t quite prepared to walk in on a pair of statues of African slaves.

The National Trust, which was founded in 1895, relies on thousands of volunteers, mostly white retirees, to show visitors its properties. Dyrham Park has a roster of around a hundred and twenty. When Sobers and his group entered the Balcony Room, they came face to face with the slave stands and stood there, listening politely. “I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it was happening,” Sobers told me. “And the tour guide talked about every single thing in that room, you know, talked about everything for a good ten, fifteen minutes and not once mentioned it.” A rope cordons off most of the Balcony Room, so visitors stand on a narrow walkway, facing the stands. There is nowhere else to look. “There wasn’t even a kind of a, you know, ‘Yeah, we don’t know what those are. . . .’ There wasn’t even an explaining it away,” Sobers said. “They just acted as if they just weren’t there at all.”

The wealth that produced many of England’s country houses has its roots in Empire and slavery. The rest of the article details a national delusion and denial of its own history. As one person is quoted, visitors only want a nice day out.

Researchers of Britain’s colonial history also welcomed the charity’s decision to consider the legacies of slavery and empire alongside each other. For more than two centuries, the transatlantic slave trade coexisted with a busy period of expansion in other parts of the world, notably in Asia. Nonetheless, the subjects usually occupy distinct places in the public imagination—a splitting that has helped to preserve a thick vein of imperial nostalgia in Britain. A poll last year found that thirty-two per cent of British adults are proud of the Empire; among the other European countries surveyed, only the Dutch recorded a higher percentage. “There’s an interesting understanding of what slavery was and what the colonization of Asia was,” Olivette Otele, a history professor at the University of Bristol, told me. (Indenture, a form of bonded labor under which more than a million Indian workers were transported around the Empire, lasted well into the twentieth century.) Of Britain’s Asian conquests, Otele said, “You think about the fabric, you think about the grandeur, you think about the beauty, the jewelry. Most people think that it was prettier, in a way. Whereas slavery is Black bodies, transported and trafficked and all that. So they don’t want to link those histories, because it forces them to see the ugliness behind the Asian colonization as well.”

These country houses are important cultural institutions, due to all the history and culture that accumulated in and around them. I previously wrote here about Susan Dry’s book The Newton papers, which described how Newton’s writings unpublished writing resided forgotten for many years in one such house until the English aristocracy collapsed and the manuscripts became part of the subsequent fire-sale. It is not an exaggeration to say that The National Trust in England was a kind of cultural bailout of these houses, and the country’s estimation of itself. As this article makes clear, the bailout is also part of an ongoing cover-up.

The Ship That Became a Bomb by Ed Caesar

Some issues of the New Yorker issues are complete home runs, and the issue The Dead Ship appeared in (the online and print titles are different) stands out as such in my mind. Alongside this alarming and utterly gripping story of a disaster waiting to happen, were articles on fusion energy, the true crime Fatty Arbuckle scandal from the golden age of Hollywood, and Gary Schteyngart’s describing the aftermath of his botched circumcision. But the ongoing situation of the F.S.O. Safer, moored in the Red Sea, just off Yemen, sticks with me the most.

The Safer’s problems are manifold and intertwined. It is forty-five years old—ancient for an oil tanker. Its age would not matter so much were it being maintained properly, but it is not. In 2014, members of one of Yemen’s powerful clans, the Houthis, launched a successful coup, presaging a brutal conflict that continues to this day. Before the war, the Yemeni state-run firm that owns the ship—the Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company, or sepoc—spent some twenty million dollars a year taking care of the vessel. Now the company can afford to make only the most rudimentary emergency repairs. More than fifty people worked on the Safer before the war; seven remain. This skeleton crew, which operates with scant provisions and no air-conditioning or ventilation below deck—interior temperatures on the ship frequently surpass a hundred and twenty degrees—is monitored by soldiers from the Houthi militia, which now occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. The Houthi leadership has obstructed efforts by foreign entities to inspect the ship or to siphon its oil. The risk of a disaster increases every day.

The article combines outright horror at the implications of the Safer sinking or exploding with bewilderment at what possible options exist and gripping insight into the world of international shipping and geopolitics. If the worst happens, we will all hear about it, if not immediately, then very soon afterwards when the consequences make themselves utterly evident. This article will no doubt be shared over social media all over again.

The beginning of the New Yorker’s history as an outlet for serious journalism is usually dated to the 1946 issue which was entirely devoted to John Hershey’s report on the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At that point the US public had been subject to a PR campaign by the government, downplaying the possibility that there would be any lasting effects of radiation poisoning. The book the was produced from Hershey’s reporting would never go out of print. Reading Caesar’s article put me in mind of how those first readers must have felt, with the exception that I am reading the article before the terrible event has happened.