Another New Yorker Reading List

Art Spiegelman's Eustace Tilley
Art Spiegelman’s Eustace Tilley

So, you’re probably aware that The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the summer.

I posted a reading list last month of some of my favorite short stories from the magazine (okay, favorite open stories), as well as a few I hadn’t read before, like pieces from Janet Frame and Annie Proulx.

Here’s another list, a baker’s dozen, including some stuff I hadn’t read before the archive opened, as well as suggestions offered by some folks on twitter:

“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill

“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders

“Goo Book” by Keith Ridgway

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

“The Five-Forty-Eight” by John Cheever”

“Brother on Sunday” by A.M. Homes

“A Beneficiary” by Nadine Gordimer

“A Village After Dark”  by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Still Life” by Don DeLillo

“Other People’s Deaths” by Lore Segal

“Going for Beer” by Robert Coover

“A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow

“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers

“Retaliation” — The Marquis de Sade

“Retaliation”

by

The Marquis de Sade

A worthy citizen of Picardy, the descendant perhaps of one of those illustrious troubadours from the banks of the Oise or the Somme whose sluggish existence has only been rescued from the shadows some ten or twelve years ago by a great writer of our time, a brave and honest citizen, I repeat, lived in the town of Saint-Quentin so famous for the great men it has given to literature. He lived there in honorable estate, himself, his wife and a cousin thrice removed, a nun of a convent in the town. The cousin thrice removed was a little brunette, bright-eyed, with a mischievous little face, a turned-up nose and a slender figure; she suffered under the weight of twenty-two years, and had been a nun for four of them. Sister Petronilla, for such was her name, had in addition a pretty voice and a much greater disposition for love than for religion. As for M. d’Esclaponville, as our citizen was called, he was a fine jovial fellow of about twenty-eight, who loved his cousin supremely and Mme d’Esclaponville nothing like so well, since he had been sleeping with her for ten years already, and a habit of ten years’ standing is quite fatal to the fires of hymen. Mme d’Esclaponville — for it is necessary to depict her, a writer would be despised if he did not portray people in an age where only pictures are required, and where even a tragedy would not be received unless the canvas-mongers found at least half a dozen subjects in it — Mme d’Esclaponville, as I was saying, was a somewhat insipid blonde, slightly washed-out, but very white-skinned, with pretty eyes, well-fleshed, and with those great chubby checks that are commonly described by the world as “a good squeeze.” Continue reading ““Retaliation” — The Marquis de Sade”

“A Carnival Jangle” — Alice Dunbar

“A Carnival Jangle”

by

Alice Dunbar

There is a merry jangle of bells in the air, an all-pervading sense of jester’s noise, and the flaunting vividness of royal colours. The streets swarm with humanity,—humanity in all shapes, manners, forms, laughing, pushing, jostling, crowding, a mass of men and women and children, as varied and assorted in their several individual peculiarities as ever a crowd that gathered in one locality since the days of Babel.

It is Carnival in New Orleans; a brilliant Tuesday in February, when the very air gives forth an ozone intensely exhilarating, making one long to cut capers. The buildings are a blazing mass of royal purple and golden yellow, national flags, bunting, and decorations that laugh in the glint of the Midas sun. The streets are a crush of jesters and maskers, Jim Crows and clowns, ballet girls and Mephistos, Indians and monkeys; of wild and sudden flashes of music, of glittering pageants and comic ones, of befeathered and belled horses; a dream of colour and melody and fantasy gone wild in an effervescent bubble of beauty that shifts and changes and passes kaleidoscope-like before the bewildered eye.

A bevy of bright-eyed girls and boys of that uncertain age that hovers between childhood and maturity, were moving down Canal Street when there was a sudden jostle with another crowd meeting them. For a minute there was a deafening clamour of shouts and laughter, cracking of the whips, which all maskers carry, a jingle and clatter of carnival bells, and the masked and unmasked extricated themselves and moved from each other’s paths. But in the confusion a tall Prince of Darkness had whispered to one of the girls in the unmasked crowd: “You’d better come with us, Flo; you’re wasting time in that tame gang. Slip off, they’ll never miss you; we’ll get you a rig, and show you what life is.”

And so it happened, when a half-hour passed, and the bright-eyed bevy missed Flo and couldn’t find her, wisely giving up the search at last, she, the quietest and most bashful of the lot, was being initiated into the mysteries of “what life is.”

Down Bourbon Street and on Toulouse and St. Peter Streets there are quaint little old-world places where one may be disguised effectually for a tiny consideration. Thither, guided by the shapely Mephisto and guarded by the team of jockeys and ballet girls, tripped Flo. Into one of the lowest-ceiled, dingiest, and most ancient-looking of these shops they stepped.

“A disguise for the demoiselle,” announced Mephisto to the woman who met them. She was small and wizened and old, with yellow, flabby jaws, a neck like the throat of an alligator, and straight, white hair that stood from her head uncannily stiff.

“But the demoiselle wishes to appear a boy, un petit garcon?” she inquired, gazing eagerly at Flo’s long, slender frame. Her voice was old and thin, like the high quavering of an imperfect tuning-fork, and her eyes were sharp as talons in their grasping glance.

“Mademoiselle does not wish such a costume,” gruffly responded Mephisto.

“Ma foi, there is no other,” said the ancient, shrugging her shoulders. “But one is left now; mademoiselle would make a fine troubadour.”

“Flo,” said Mephisto, “it’s a dare-devil scheme, try it; no one will ever know it but us, and we’ll die before we tell. Besides, we must; it’s late, and you couldn’t find your crowd.”

And that was why you might have seen a Mephisto and a slender troubadour of lovely form, with mandolin flung across his shoulder, followed by a bevy of jockeys and ballet girls, laughing and singing as they swept down Rampart Street.

When the flash and glare and brilliancy of Canal Street have palled upon the tired eye, when it is yet too soon to go home to such a prosaic thing as dinner, and one still wishes for novelty, then it is wise to go into the lower districts. There is fantasy and fancy and grotesqueness run wild in the costuming and the behaviour of the maskers. Such dances and whoops and leaps as these hideous Indians and devils do indulge in; such wild curvetings and long walks! In the open squares, where whole groups do congregate, it is wonderfully amusing. Then, too, there is a ball in every available hall, a delirious ball, where one may dance all day for ten cents; dance and grow mad for joy, and never know who were your companions, and be yourself unknown. And in the exhilaration of the day, one walks miles and miles, and dances and skips, and the fatigue is never felt.

In Washington Square, away down where Royal Street empties its stream of children great and small into the broad channel of Elysian Fields Avenue, there was a perfect Indian pow-wow. With a little imagination one might have willed away the vision of the surrounding houses, and fancied one’s self again in the forest, where the natives were holding a sacred riot. The square was filled with spectators, masked and un-masked. It was amusing to watch these mimic Red-men, they seemed so fierce and earnest.

Suddenly one chief touched another on the elbow. “See that Mephisto and troubadour over there?” he whispered huskily.

“Yes; who are they?”

“I don’t know the devil,” responded the other, quietly, “but I’d know that other form anywhere. It’s Leon, see? I know those white hands like a woman’s and that restless head. Ha!”

“But there may be a mistake.”

“No. I’d know that one anywhere; I feel it is he. I’ll pay him now. Ah, sweetheart, you’ve waited long, but you shall feast now!” He was caressing something long and lithe and glittering beneath his blanket.

In a masked dance it is easy to give a death-blow between the shoulders. Two crowds meet and laugh and shout and mingle almost inextricably, and if a shriek of pain should arise, it is not noticed in the din, and when they part, if one should stagger and fall bleeding to the ground, can any one tell who has given the blow? There is nothing but an unknown stiletto on the ground, the crowd has dispersed, and masks tell no tales anyway. There is murder, but by whom? for what? Quien sabe?

And that is how it happened on Carnival night, in the last mad moments of Rex’s reign, a broken-hearted mother sat gazing wide-eyed and mute at a horrible something that lay across the bed. Outside the long sweet march music of many bands floated in as if in mockery, and the flash of rockets and Bengal lights illumined the dead, white face of the girl troubadour.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Eleventh Riff: The Nineties)

jgb_complete_ss4003111

PREVIOUSLY:

Introductions + stories 1956-1959

Stories of 1960

Stories of 1961

Stories of 1962

“The Subliminal Man,” Black Friday, and Consumerism

Stories of 1963-1964

Stories of 1966

Closing out the sixties

The seventies

The eighties

IN THIS RIFF:

“Dream Cargoes” (1990)

“A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” (1992)

“Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992)

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

“The Dying Fall” (1996)

1. “Dream Cargoes” (1990)

By the 1990s Ballard had written essentially the same stories over and over—with diminishing returns. Some of the weakness in the later entries in the Complete Short Stories can be attributed to Ballard’s prescience. The world caught up to him at some point, blunting his satire into something goofier, more cartoonish, but also sharpening the reactionary streak that always glowed under the surface of his writing. At his peak, Ballard used his stories to provoke readers into looking at their culture in a new way, and the best of those stories still retain a futurist power. However, many of the late period stories blazon their moral outrage in a wearisome didactic streak.

1990’s “Dream Cargoes” is paint-by-numbers Ballard: Themes of time, sleep, mutation, ecological disaster, birds, etc. The plot anticipates one of Ballard’s weaker novels, Rushing to Paradise (1994), a day-glo nightmare about misguided attempts to steward the forces of nature. And like Rushing to Paradise, the prose here is weak—Ballard relies on the stock phrases that litter his earliest stories.

2. “The Message from Mars” (1992) / “Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992) / “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)

“The Message from Mars” anticipates public disinterest in astronomy (and science in general), the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, and China’s emerging dominance as a world power with space flight capability. So there you go. (It also posits the horror of a President Quayle!). Ballard sends a group of astronauts on a Mars mission, refuses to share their findings with us, and then leaves them, once they land, in their space shuttle, where they live on for decades, silent, incommunicado, alienated from humanity in their self-imposed exile. Ballard’s cynicism is balanced by his refusal to overstate any kind of moral here—the story succeeds in its evocation of mystery.

“Report from an Obscure Planet” is another riff on millennial anxieties, written in the perspective of a “we” condemning the human race for its shortsighted, disastrous treatment of the planet. Ballard doesn’t seem to keen on the future wonders promised by computers:

Driven by the need for a more lifelike replica of the scenes of carnage that most entertained them, the people of this unhappy world had invented an advanced and apparently interiorised version of their television screens, a virtual replica of reality in which they could act out their most deviant fantasies. These three–dimensional simulations were generated by their computers, and had reached a stage of development in the last years of the millennium in which the imitation of reality was more convincing than the original. It may even have become the new reality to the extent that their cities and highways, their fellow citizens and, ultimately, themselves seemed mere illusions by comparison with the electronically generated amusement park where they preferred to play. Here they could assume any identity, create and fulfill any desire, and explore the most deviant dreams.  

While “Report from an Obscure Planet” uses a didactic narrator and a heavy hand to telegraph its message, its companion piece “A Guide to Virtual Death” is far more fun, wicked, and shockingly accurate (if wildly hyperbolic). Sure, yes, okay—another list from Ballard, and okay, yes, sure—I tend to be keen on his lists (“The Index,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”)—but they also tend to be his strongest pieces. As usual with his list-stories, Ballard feels obligated to begin with a note:

For reasons amply documented elsewhere, intelligent life on earth became extinct in the closing hours of the 20th Century. Among the clues left to us, the following schedule of a day’s television programmes transmitted to an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere on December 23, 1999, offers its own intriguing insight into the origins of the disaster.

6.00 am Porno–Disco. Wake yourself up with his–and–her hard–core sex images played to a disco beat.

7.00 Weather Report. Today’s expected micro–climates in the city’s hotel atriums, shopping malls and office complexes. Hilton International promises an afternoon snow–shower as a Christmas appetiser.

7.15 News Round–up. What our news–makers have planned for you. Maybe a small war, a synthetic earthquake or a famine–zone! charity tie–in.

7.45 Breakfast Time. Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.

Brief but Essential. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

3. “The Dying Fall” (1996) / “The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)

The American edition of Complete Stories is more complete than the British volume, including two extra stories. “The Dying Fall” (read it here if you like) is an unfortunate last entry, a weak note in a grand tome. It’s not bad; it’s simply not good, yet another revenge tale with a bad wife, etc. It feels like a frame for Ballard to riff on architecture and psychoanalysis.

“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” is much stronger (you can read it here), although it was also composed at his peak and republished (“rediscovered”) after his death. The final lines would have made a fitting end for the entire collection:

When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel, and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station, he assembled a small armory of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.

But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on his lawn and on those of his former neighbors. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.

Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

4. On the horizon:

I am done! Sort of. One more post—I’ll revisit these riffs and select the tales that I would include in a collection I would call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.

“Rooms” — Gertrude Stein

“Rooms”

by Gertrude Stein

Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet. There was an occupation.

A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing. This which is not why there is a voice is the remains of an offering. There was no rental.

So the tune which is there has a little piece to play, and the exercise is all there is of a fast. The tender and true that makes no width to hew is the time that there is question to adopt.

To begin the placing there is no wagon. There is no change lighter. It was done. And then the spreading, that was not accomplishing that needed standing and yet the time was not so difficult as they were not all in place. They had no change. They were not respected. They were that, they did it so much in the matter and this showed that that settlement was not condensed. It was spread there. Any change was in the ends of the centre. A heap was heavy. There was no change.

Burnt and behind and lifting a temporary stone and lifting more than a drawer.

The instance of there being more is an instance of more. The shadow is not shining in the way there is a black line. The truth has come. There is a disturbance. Trusting to a baker’s boy meant that there would be very much exchanging and anyway what is the use of a covering to a door. There is a use, they are double.

If the centre has the place then there is distribution. That is natural. There is a contradiction and naturally returning there comes to be both sides and the centre. That can be seen from the description.

The author of all that is in there behind the door and that is entering in the morning. Explaining darkening and expecting relating is all of a piece. The stove is bigger. It was of a shape that made no audience bigger if the opening is assumed why should there not be kneeling. Any force which is bestowed on a floor shows rubbing. This is so nice and sweet and yet there comes the change, there comes the time to press more air. This does not mean the same as disappearance.

Continue reading ““Rooms” — Gertrude Stein”

“The Index” — J.G. Ballard

“The Index”

by J.G. Ballard

EDITOR’S NOTE. From abundant internal evidence it seems clear that the text printed below is the index to the unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography of a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century. Yet of his existence nothing is publicly known, although his life and work appear to have exerted a profound influence on the events of the past fifty years. Physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion, Henry Rhodes Hamilton was evidently the intimate of the greatest men and women of our age. After World War II he founded a new movement of spiritual regener­ation, but private scandal and public concern at his grow­ing megalomania, culminating in his proclamation of himself as a new divinity, seem to have led to his down­fall. Incarcerated within an unspecified government insti­tution, he presumably spent his last years writing his autobiography of which this index is the only surviving fragment.

A substantial mystery still remains. Is it conceivable that all traces of his activities could be erased from our records of the period? Is the suppressed autobiography itself a disguised roman à clef, in which the fictional hero exposes the secret identities of his historical contempo­raries? And what is the true role of the indexer himself, clearly a close friend of the writer, who first suggested that he embark on his autobiography? This ambiguous and shadowy figure has taken the unusual step of index­ing himself into his own index. Perhaps the entire compi­lation is nothing more than a figment of the over­wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer. Alternatively, the index may be wholly genuine, and the only glimpse we have into a world hidden from us by a gigantic conspiracy, of which Henry Rhodes Hamilton is the greatest victim.

A

Acapulco, 143

Acton, Harold, 142–7, 213

Alcazar, Siege of, 221–5

Alimony, HRH pays, 172, 247, 367, 453

Anaxagoras, 35, 67, 69–78, 481

Apollinaire, 98

Arden, Elizabeth, 189, 194, 376–84

Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The (Stein), 112

Avignon, birthplace of HRH, 9–13; childhood holidays, 27; research at Pasteur Institute of Ophthalmology, 101; attempts to restore anti-Papacy, 420–35

B

Bal Musette, Paris, 98

Balliol College, Oxford, 69–75, 231

Beach, Sylvia, 94–7

Berenson, Bernard, conversations with HRH, 134; offer of adoption, 145; loan of Dürer etching, 146; law-suits against HRH, 173–85

Bergman, Ingrid, 197, 134, 267

Biarritz, 123

Blixen, Karen von (Isak Dinesen), letters to HRH, declines marriage proposal, 197

Byron, Lord, 28, 76, 98, 543 Continue reading ““The Index” — J.G. Ballard”

“Samuel” — Grace Paley

“Samuel”

by Grace Paley

Some boys are very tough. They’re afraid of nothing. They are the ones who climb a wall and take a bow at the top. Not only are they brave on the roof, but they make a lot of noise in the darkest part of the cellar where even the super hates to go. They also jiggle and hop on the platform between the locked doors of the subway cars.

Four boys are jiggling on the swaying platform. Their names are Alfred, Calvin, Samuel, and Tom. The men and women in the cars on either side watch them. They don’t like them to jiggle or jump but don’t want to interfere. Of course some of the men in the cars were once brave boys like these. One of them had ridden the tail of a speeding truck from New York to Rockaway Beach without getting off, without his sore fingers losing hold. Nothing happened to him then or later. He had made a compact with other boys who preferred to watch: starting at Eighth Avenue and Fifteenth Street, he would get to some specified place, maybe Twenty-third and the river, by hopping the tops of the moving trucks. This was hard to do when one truck turned a corner in the wrong direction and the nearest truck was a couple of feet too high. He made three or four starts before succeeding. He had gotten this idea from a film at school called The Romance of Logging. He had finished high school, married a good friend, was in a responsible job, and going to night school.

These two men and others looked at the four boys jumping and jiggling on the platform and thought. It must be fun to ride that way, especially now the weather is nice and we’re out of the tunnel and way high over the Bronx. Then they thought. These kids do seem to be acting sort of stupid. They are little. Then they thought of some of the brave things they had done when they were boys and jiggling didn’t seem so risky.

The ladies in the car became very angry when they looked at the four boys. Most of them brought their brows together and hoped the boys could see their extreme disapproval. One of the ladies wanted to get up and say, be careful you dumb kids, get off that platform or I’ll call a cop. But three of the boys were Negroes and the fourth was something else she couldn’t tell for sure. She was afraid they’d be fresh and laugh at her and embarrass her. She wasn’t afraid they’d hit her, but she was afraid of embarrassment. Another lady thought, their mothers never know where they are. It wasn’t true in this particular case. Their mothers all knew that they had gone to see the missile exhibit on Fourteenth Street.

Out on the platform, whenever the train accelerated, the boys would raise their hands and point them up to the sky to act like rockets going off, then they rat-tat-tatted the shatterproof glass pane like machine guns, although no machine guns had been exhibited.

For some reason known only to the motorman, the train began a sudden slowdown. The lady who was afraid of embarrassment saw the boys jerk forward and backward and grab the swinging guard chains. She had her own boy at home. She stood up with determination and went to the door. She slid it open and said, “You boys will be hurt. You’ll be killed. I’m going to call the conductor if you don’t just go into the next car and sit down and be quiet.”

Two of the boys said, “Yes’m,” and acted as though they were about to go. Two of them blinked their eyes a couple of times and pressed their lips together. The train resumed its speed. The door slid shut, parting the lady and the boys. She leaned against the side door because she had to get off at the next stop.

The boys opened their eyes wide at each other and laughed. The lady  blushed. The boys looked at her and laughed harder. They began to pound each other’s back. Samuel laughed the hardest and pounded Alfred’s back until Alfred coughed and the tears came. Alfred held tight to the chain hook. Samuel pounded him even harder when he saw the tears. He said, “Why you bawling? You a baby, huh?” and laughed. One of the men whose boyhood had been more watchful than brave became angry. He stood up straight and looked at the boys for a couple of seconds. Then he walked in a citizenly way to the end of the car, where he pulled the emergency cord. Almost at once, with a terrible hiss, the pressure of air abandoned the brakes and the wheels were caught and held.

People standing in the most secure places fell forward, then backward. Samuel had let go of his hold on the chain so he could pound Tom as well as Alfred. All the passengers in the cars whipped back and forth, but he pitched only forward and fell head first to be crushed and killed between the cars.

The train had stopped hard, halfway into the station, and the conductor called at once for the trainmen who knew about this kind of death and how to take the body from the wheels and brakes. There was silence except for passengers from the other cars who asked, What happened! What happened! The ladies waited around wondering if he might be an only child. The men recalled other afternoons with very bad endings. The little boys stayed close to each other, leaning and touching shoulders and arms and legs.

When the policeman knocked at the door and told her about it, Samuel’s mother began to scream. She screamed all day and moaned all night, though the doctors tried to quiet her with pills.

Oh, oh, she hopelessly cried. She did not know how she could ever find another boy like that one. However, she was a young woman and she became pregnant. Then for a few months she was hopeful. The child born to her was a boy. They brought him to be seen and nursed. She smiled. But immediately she saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel. She and her husband together have had other children, but never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known.