I picked up a copy of Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais last week, in translation by Sophie Hughes, who also translated Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season, possibly my favorite contemporary read of last year. Here’s publisher New Directions’ blurb:
Inside a luxury housing complex, two misfit teenagers sneak around and get drunk. Franco, lonely, overweight, and addicted to porn, obsessively fantasizes about seducing his neighbor—an attractive married woman and mother—while Polo dreams about quitting his awful job as the gated community’s gardener and fleeing his overbearing mother and their narco-controlled village. Faced with the impossibility of getting what they think they deserves, Franco and Polo hatch a mindless and macabre scheme.
I picked up Paradais at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C., where I spent a humid, often-aggravating week with my family, or most of my family. My daughter was attending a sleep-away camp there, so my wife and son and I took on that week as a vacation; he lost his fifth-grade trip to D.C. in 2020, one of so many things cancelled by Covid.
East City was the best of the handful of bookshops I got to go to in D.C. — clean and well-curated with a nice contemporary selection. All new, no used, but cool stuff. I went there after visiting Capitol Hill Books, which has a nice selection of second-hand stuff, but I’ve been spoiled by the place right by my house. I also enjoyed lunch at the Busboys and Poets on K Street, and browsed their small but-well-curated inventory without purchasing anything. I also walked a block out of my way to go to Reiter’s Books, which seemed to be more of a coffee stand/passport photo booth with some used economics books strewn about.
I didn’t expect the bookstores to be a highlight of D.C. and they weren’t. It was the museums we spent most of our time at, our son making most of the calls. My favorite thing was Laurie Anderson’s exhibit The Weather at the Hirschorn: immersive, bold, moving, the right mix of playfulness and pretension. I got to see it twice, the second time in the morning as we waited to view the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, and this time it was mostly empty, and I could really “see” it and feel it.
I also enjoyed my visit to the National Gallery of Art, which was chock full of great stuff, but a strange highlight were the huge, scrolling Joan of Arc paintings by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, which stood out, so-called “children’s illustrations” in a gallery full of fine art where nothing else looked like them.
There were plenty of other highlights, as well as wonderful little moments of revelation, like seeing a Jacob Lawrence hanging in the White House, or a random Whistler in the Freer, but as everyone who tries to attend to art museums overmuch, one’s sensitivity becomes dulled.
This was by my reckoning my seventh trip to D.C. and the city seems more blocked up than ever—the vibe is stifled, stuck, barriers literal and figurative everywhere. Along with Las Vegas, D.C. is the only major American city I can think of that I am happy to leave in contrast to, say, L.A. or NYC or Key West or Atlanta or New Orleans, where I always want just one more day.
At the end of it all I finally got Covid, which has fortunately passed over my family. I’ve been fine, just a little sick, mostly bored of being quarantined in my bedroom. Today was the first day I actually felt able to, like, write, although I’ve had a hard time reading anything to be honest (I pass my eyes over the words, but nothing attaches). But finally getting Covid feels like the appropriate conclusion to a week in the capital at the end of the awful summer of 2022.
I’ll end with a quote that’s always stuck in my head from an obscure Pavement song, “Brink of the Clouds”: “And the capital sucks / Like a capital should.”