‘On Immunity’ by Eula Biss

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 3, 2014

Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.

Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).

The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”

“The metaphors we find in this gesture are overwhelmingly fearful, and almost always suggest violation, corruption and pollution,” she writes. And though vaccine production is one of our more rigorously regulated industries, vaccines have been blamed for causing everything from allergies to autism. Even though the scientific literature cited by the anti-vaccination movement has been repeatedly debunked, American children — particularly those of white, wealthy, educated parents — are going unvaccinated in increasing numbers, with the predictable consequences. There have been recent outbreaks of mumps and whooping cough. Measles, which had all but disappeared in America, made a major resurgence this year.

on-immunityjpg-f69e74785ff54cfaBiss doesn’t linger on the outbreaks, nor does she refer to an “anti-vaccination movement.” She speaks only of “mothers.” This book, she tells us, was born out of conversations she had with other mothers while expecting her first child, conversations that complicated her ideas of vaccination and introduced her to a vocabulary of dread. She was warned about potential contaminants — “the frickin’ mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze,” in the words of the actress Jenny McCarthy, a vocal critic of vaccination. But Biss realized that what was troubling about vaccines wasn’t what was in them (not least because she says there’s nothing toxic to be found), but the fog of fear surrounding them, how strenuously these mothers insisted that vaccines were dangerous even when presented with evidence to the contrary. “Our fears are dear to us,” she writes, and she parses these fears with kindness and complicity. After all, she says, she matches the profile of the kind of woman inclined to be suspicious of vaccines — white, educated, relatively wealthy — a woman drawn to doing things “naturally,” who tells us she gave birth without pain medication, medical intervention or an IV.

That “naturally” is key. Our anxieties about industrialization, at how we’ve polluted the world and presumably each other, have given the word its particular luster: “Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world.”

Biss reports from deep inside the panic. “My son’s birth brought with it an exaggerated sense of both my own power and my own powerlessness,” she writes. The world became suddenly forbidding: There is the lead paint in the wall to fear, the hexavalent chromium in the water. Even stagnant air, she was told, can kill her child. “It is both a luxury and a hazard to feel threatened by the invisible,” she says. “In Chicago, where 677 children were shot the year after my son was born, I still somehow manage to find myself more captivated by less tangible threats.” Weaning proved especially excruciating. “As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory,” she writes. “I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ my mind screamed.”

We do love to pit the sacred against the profane, but breast milk, it turns out, contains traces of paint thinners, flame-­retardants, even rocket fuel. If it were sold in stores, some samples would exceed federal food-safety levels for pesticides. “We are all already polluted,” Biss learns. “We are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

Continue reading

Drawing Words From the Well of Art: On Ben Lerner and ’10:04′

Credit Jake Naughton/The New York Times

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Aug. 22, 2014

On a recent afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two standard poodles could be found lounging among the Monets. No one was looking at the water lilies; everyone was photographing the animals (allowed there as medical-alert dogs), particularly the white one, which had fine braids woven into its hair.

Ben Lerner, the poet turned novelist, was at the Met to visit the painting at the heart of his new novel, “10:04,” to be published on Sept. 2 by Faber & Faber. He can’t stay away from museums. Crucial scenes in his books are set at the Met, the Prado, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

“They’re these huge laboratories for all the different contradictory notions of what art is,” he said. Or, he added in the wry, lightly despairing voice of his fiction, “a place to show off your poodles.”

The painting Mr. Lerner, 35, had come to see is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc,” which depicts Joan swooning as she hears the call to battle. It’s something of a famous failure, but Mr. Lerner loves its flaws: “I like paintings that depict what paintings can’t depict, like hearing voices.” He said that the “glitches in the pictorial matrix” in this otherwise naturalistic painting — the cartoonish angels, the way Joan’s left hand dissolves into the paint — inspired his new novel’s questions about how artists render phenomena that seem impossible to describe: the passage of time, the texture of consciousness.

“What interests me about fiction,” he said, “is, in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”

Mr. Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” received an enthusiastic reception when it was published in 2011. It won a Believer Book Award and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker, The Guardian and New York magazine. The writer Geoff Dyer declared it “so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.”

The book has little in the way of conventional plot: An American poet in Madrid (where Mr. Lerner was a Fulbright fellow), addled by “porn and privilege,” wanders around, halfheartedly pursuing women, telling increasingly elaborate lies, pickling in his self-loathing. The style was the real story: a palimpsest of poems, prose, G-chats, essays and photographs that invoke the slacker novel, the expat novel, the manic monologues of Thomas Bernhard — infused with a sly stoner charm.

“ ‘Atocha’ is “full of formal innovations,” Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review and an early champion of the novel, wrote in an email, “the way it captures contemporary speech and thought and so on, but in a funny way, you take that stuff for granted. It’s not like someone using different colored inks or doodling in the margins — being ‘original.’ It’s more like you wonder how other novels got along without noticing those things.”

“10:04” picks up where the first book leaves off. The unnamed poet narrator has recently received “an alarming amount of critical acclaim” and is facing, to his bewilderment, a possible “strong six-figure” deal with a major publisher.

In one of the more frank discussions of publishing in American fiction, his agent assures him that the novel doesn’t have to — and probably won’t — sell well. (“Presses wanted a potential darling of the critics,” she explains, to help “maintain the reputation of the house, even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas.”)

Around this strand, others twine: The narrator decides to donate sperm so his best friend can have a child; he learns he may have a rare genetic disease; an older friend falls gravely ill; the city braces for Hurricane Sandy; and he starts to write what we understand will become this book.

Continue reading

On ‘Man and Beast’ by Mary Ellen Mark

01SEHGAL1-master495By Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, May 30, 2014

Over the last 50 years, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed twins, clowns, patients in a mental hospital, Ku Klux Klan members and Liza Minnelli. She likes to look at people who are used to being looked at, and she uses her camera like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso — as a truth-telling device that peels performance from personality. In one of her most famous photographs, “Tiny” (1983), a Seattle street kid poses in her Halloween costume: a little black dress, little black gloves and a hat with a netted veil. It’s the daintiness of Tiny’s dress combined with her defiance that gives the photograph its charge. Tough Tiny looks afraid.

Mark has been shooting in Mexico and India since the 1960s, and in “Man and Beast,” she brings together her black-and-white photographs into an affectionate, annoying, stubbornly beautiful book. The new collection includes some of her most famous images and many of her obsessions — girls made up to look like grown women, disembodied faces rising out of water. There is that fondness for photographing twins, clowns and cross-dressers that has earned her inevitable comparisons with Diane Arbus, but while Arbus pounced on flaws and eccentricities with carnivorous delight, Mark’s mission is gentler. “I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me,” she has said of her subjects. She’s known for her long, intimate relationships with the people she photographs. She’s still in touch with Tiny.

Mark does her Mexican and Indian subjects a disservice, however, by lumping together their photos without captions or real explanation. She writes only that “both countries overwhelm my senses,” that “there is a primal force I sense in the people and their culture.” It’s disappointing to see this photographer so alert to visual cliché indulge in exoticism, but a breezy dismissal of political and historical context has always been a troublesome strain in Mark’s work. She once said “Falkland Road,” her 1981 book on Mumbai’s sex workers, was “meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman.” But what could be less metaphorical than those iron cages the women were housed and displayed in? To give the viewer a point of entry, she risks trivializing not only the suffering of others, but also the power of her photographs.

For the photographs are wise, warm and complicated. Like Helen Levitt, Mark is fascinated by the inner lives of children, but rather than capturing their play, their little dramas, she has them sit for immensely dignified portraits. And in “Man and Beast,” she extends that dignity to the world of animals. Continue reading

On ‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis

NPR.org, May 13, 2014

Listen on All Things Considered

Lydia Davis’ stories have been called prose poems, case studies, riddles, koans — even gherkins, for being so small and tart and edible. But properly speaking, they are magic tricks. Davis is a performative writer, as subtle and economical in her movements as any magician, and she’s out to enchant.

Coming across her terse little stories feels rather like being shown a top hat, being told it’s empty, being shown it’s empty, and then watching something enormous and oddly shaped emerge from it. From a handful of sentences, Davis can wrest meaning or dazzle us with sleight of hand. Take the story “Collaboration With Fly.” Here it is: “I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.”

Reading Davis is to be reminded that “grammar” and “glamour” share a root — the Scots word for magic.

Can’t and Won’t, her eighth story collection, finds Davis working in a minor key. There is her usual great preoccupation with train travel, food, aloneness, but with a more tragic cast. She is also a distinguished translator of Proust and Flaubert, and everywhere in the book is the obsession with the right word, the best word; whole stories hinge on whether the stolen meat was sausage or salami, whether the fish is called “scrod” or “shrod.” But there is a dash of surrealism in these stories, especially the ones written from her dreams or those of her friends — simple, startling images, like tarot cards come to life.

And in between those short scenes, those short showers of text, are long storms of prose — like “The Seals,” on the death of a beloved older sister, which again takes up precision in language and feeling, as a character tries to parse and pin down her grief:

“I’d like to just look at your cheeks, your shoulders, your arms, your wrist with the gold watchband on it, a little tight, pressing into the flesh, your strong hands, the gold wedding ring, your short fingernails, I don’t have to look you in the eyes or have any sort of communion, complete or incomplete, but to have you there in person, in the flesh, for a while, pressing down the mattress, making folds in the cover, the sun coming in behind you, would be very nice. Maybe you would stretch out on the daybed and read for a while in the afternoon, maybe fall asleep. I would be in the next room, nearby.”

Continue reading

On ‘Living With a Wild God’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

When they choose to reveal themselves, the spirits have always shown a marked preference for young women — Joan of Arc, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard, Mirabai, Rabia al Basri. When they chose 17-year-old Barbara Ehrenreich, they could never have guessed at her violent dismay. For this scientist in the making, these mystical visions were an unbearable offense, an affront to her carefully ordered mind. She went up a mountain with a boy. He was looking for dynamite, but she got blasted apart.

She never spoke or wrote about what she saw that day, save for entries in a journal she kept from 1956 to 1966. In 2001, preparing to send her papers to a university library, she found the journal again and took up the questions her younger self couldn’t answer: What did she see on the mountain? Could there be a rational explanation? She brings her journalistic experience and instincts to the investigation, treating the journal like a primary source.

wildgod“Living With a Wild God” makes for pleasantly prickly reading. Ehrenreich is intrigued by her questions, but also exasperated and more than a little embarrassed. After all, she’s Barbara Ehrenreich, she’ll have you know, an atheist and a journalist, the author of polemics against self-soothing delusions like positive thinking. She’s our professional skeptic, our slayer of platitudes. Not the sort of woman who would embark on anything so self-indulgent as a memoir, let alone babble on about mystical experiences. “I had — and still have — no inclination to try to patch this all together into a single story. I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent ‘self’ or ‘voice’ to serve as narrator,” she writes in the foreword. And then, of course, she proceeds to do exactly that over the course of the next 200 pages. She strings together her visions on the mountain, the chaos of her childhood, her studies in science and her antiwar activism into a single story — a search for truth, she says — telling it in her “sternly objective reporter” voice, the voice she’s cultivated, the voice we know.

Born out of a fundamental quarrel with oneself — What did I see that day? What can I believe? — the book is lively with inconsistencies, pledges broken, courses changed. The tangle of contradictions give it a humming, querulous energy. And Ehrenreich becomes an unreliable narrator par excellence, capable of sounding as sepulchral and unhinged as Poe. She explains her decision to go to college in Oregon instead of California with the mournful “Outbreaks of sunshine were unnatural and disturbing.” For all her gestures at journalistic objectivity and the lovely science writing (she can describe a chain of hydrogen bonds so beautifully it glitters like jewelry), the story creeps into the gothic as Ehrenreich struggles to conceal her visions from the world. “Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you’ll likely get the same response you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction.” She is her own madwoman in the attic.

Continue reading

What Muriel Spark Saw


Photograph by Brooke DiDonato.

Parul Sehgal, New Yorker.com, April 8, 2014

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.

To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.

But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.

The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.

What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.

Continue reading

On ‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore

Bookforum Feb/Mar 2014 issue

The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having a significantly lower body count than usual. These stories rarely rise to the gaudy horror of her previous work. Death does not stalk her characters the way it once did. Children are finally allowed to survive to adulthood, and only animals meet spectacular ends—a decapitated deer’s neck is left “open like a severed cable bundle.”

But there is ash in the air; the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are a through line. We’re meant to understand that these are stories of people in wartime, peculiar people during a peculiar war, a distant, endless war. Bark alludes to Abu Ghraib, Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the recession, but current events remain for the most part offstage. Politics are invoked but rarely shape choice or fate in these stories (the way they did in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which dealt explicitly with immigration and interracial adoption). They fade into backdrop for the more exigent narratives: the love stories. How could they compete? Moore’s real subject has always been Heterosexuality and Its Discontents. Her chosen people are the lovelorn.

And what an irresistible bunch of characters she conjures up: star-crossed midwesterners terrifically intimidated by their children and worried about their lawns. They are sweet, in a concussed kind of way. They suffer with great élan. In an interview with the New York Times early in her career, Moore spoke of discovering Margaret Atwood’s work: “For the first time I read fiction about women who were not goddesses or winners. In some way they were victims, but they weren’t wimps. They were stylish about their victimization.” This could be a thrifty description of Moore’s own characters; their spouses desert them, but their wit never does. “If you’re suicidal,” says one, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’” It’s as if Raymond Carver’s characters preferred wordplay to whiskey. Take the depressed divorcé from “Debarking”: “He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter.”) They are prone to private revolutions, tart one-liners (“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking”), joyless couplings. “Hey, cutie,” a man calls to his wife “after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” You’ll notice that Moore’s characters continue to sound alike—and have sounded alike for almost thirty years, since Self-Help was published in 1985. At its best, this sameness of voice and unremitting archness give her work a Wildean luster. At its worst, the compulsive punning is just punishing (sorry): “He was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

Even the title is a gag. The word “bark” crops up throughout the book, in different contexts and with different meanings, connoting, most often, human laughter, involuntary laughter mingled with scorn and surprise. It’s the harsh music of this collection, which has a looser weave than Moore’s other books. From what she described as the “feminine emergencies” and experimentalism of her early books, Self-Help and Anagrams, and the hard glitter of Birds of America, she’s now settled on a simpler structure and more muted tone: An encounter with a stranger forces a muffled epiphany and a languid denouement. Again and again, she assembles the powder keg, strikes a match—and blows it out. She still writes complex melodies for the ear—the sentences are full of sprung rhythms and internal rhymes (“The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”)—but narratively, there’s less shock and more mystery. We get ragged plotlines, a ruminative homage to Nabokov, a gentle ghost story, characters suspended in amber, mystified by their own paralysis.

Continue reading