Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: July, 2013

A letter to Matt concerning the Summer Jams

by iroqu0ispliskin

Dear Matt,

Since the beginning of the iPod era (it’s been like 6 years or so, for me), I’ve been making these seasonal playlists, two per year. It’s been been kind of a ritual by this point, and it usually involves a liberal mix of modern hits and classic music I’ve retrospectively discovered. If you followed these things over the year you’d see me first discovering The Smiths in fall 2008, the Beatles in fall 2009, and the Clash in fall 2010.  It’s like watching your little brother discover rock n’ roll.  Which, come to think of it, is a great song. A few notes:

Pressure ZoneOkay, I think that Sea Change is basically the best Beck album and also one of the greatest albums of all time. But right before that album was Midnite Vultures — this freaky album he made in 1999. At the time, this aggressively freaky foray into R&B, conducted under the unpronounceable sign of Prince, was was considered a bizarre abberation from Beck’s trademark white-boy rapfolk material, and now it strikes me as the road not taken. This song is not strictly representative but it is the one that gets me the most hyped.

Hang On Sloopy: This all-time classic also functions as the unofficial theme song of Ohio, the land of my birth. I gather, from context, that Sloopy is a woman of some kind.  But what she is supposed to be hanging onto?  What is the hazard here? History is silent on these topics.

Price Tag and Bright Lights, Bigger City: These songs both figure prominently in the denoument of the feature film Pitch Perfect. Matthew, I watched this film on a plane flight back from America last December, and I am still aca-ashamed of how much I enjoyed it. I might have watched it two times on that plane flight alone. I suppose it is fashionable to hate popular music but I cannot pass up gems like these.

I Feel Free: I’ve finally gotten around to the first season of The Sopranos. This song plays over the credits of the second to last episode of the first season, the one where he hallucinates about the voluptuous Italian dental student next door, over at the Cuzmanos’. In context, it has a somewhat ominous undertone.

Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix) feat. Jay Z: Jigga is squarely in the Greg Maddux phase of his career. I mean, you expect him to be pretty workmanlike and not make any stupid mistakes. But then occasionally he finds himself inspired and pitch a series of shutout innings.  Listen, I’m not great with sports metaphors.  I’m lead to believe Greg Maddux was a famous sportsman of our era.

Tangerine (Gentleman’s Club Remix) feat. Rick Ross, Fabolous, and Bun B: Uhh, this song is incredible, perhaps the finest of the stripper-homage rap tracks on wax.  It’s greatest feat is Rick Ross rapping that he’s “Got Pocohontas on his Yokohamas”, although I also enjoy everything that Bun B does on principle.

Starships: My 5-year-old nephew is, incongruously, a really big Niki Minaj fan. He likes to sing along to this song, oblivious its fairly raunchy lyrics. For the record I’ve always been in favour of Niki Minaj despite her being somewhat crazy, because of the incredibly high quality of her peak output. It takes quite a lady to kill Jay Z on a Kanye West track.

The Motto: Both the anthem of our era, Matthew, and also the finest Drake song yet to touch the earth. I blame the gorgeous beat and Lil’ Wayne’s effortlessly gonzo contribution. I honestly don’t know how this man has established himself as the most successful rappers of his generation.  It would be like William S. Burroughs dominating the New York Times Bestseller list for a solid decade.

In Da Wind: I am not entirely certain who Trick Daddy is, but I’m pretty certain that he adores today’s youth.


A letter to Wes, on Tolstoy vs. Austen again

by gradus22

White hot fury! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to say those words to me. It’s just like I dreamt it would be!This must be how Anne Hathaway felt when she won her Oscar .. .no, this is must be how Anne Hathaway felt on the set of Becoming Jane! Our dorky little duel (weapon of choice: classic literature) has been a great deal of fun, but I’m glad to see that you’re mature enough to concede that Tolstoy was probably the greater writer. Reader, I buried him!

Let’s get this clear, before the Austenophiles come after me: both Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy are in that first tier of the greatest authors. Nothing I could possibly say could change that. They are still published, widely read and praised centuries after their time. If there’s a global catastrophe, Tolstoy’s works will be preserved. If humanity is ever forced to flee Earth on a giant spaceship, Jane Austen’s works will  … probably be brought on board, most likely somewhere near the back, with the women writers and the other romance novelists. (Kidding! Jane Austen fans might be the easiest demographic to offend on the internet. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel).

But seriously, any effort to definitively choose between the two is an exercise in splitting hairs; any decision on the matter probably indicates personal preference more than anything else. I’ve tried Jane Austen and she does nothing for me. (I strongly suspect that I’m not the first male reader who has come away with this impression.) I’ll never feel comfortable completely dismissing her, but I’m certainly not going to read her for the sole purpose of doing so. That’s no way to express one’s appreciation for literature.

At our core, I think human beings are story-telling telling creatures. That, more than anything else, is what puts us over the other animals: our ability to store and communicate information and how it has evolved into complex artistic expression over time. A good story will always matter more to most readers than identity, demographic data, technical expertise or stylistic experimentation; you can see proof of this in Tolstoy and Austen as well as the best-seller lists. And story-telling is the function of an author’s choices, conscious or unconscious, starting with the big one (What should I write about?) and going all the way down to questions of usage and punctuation. Sometimes it’s reassuring when writers make the same choices – after all, you can’t have a meaningful system of language without some consistency. Sometimes it’s frustrating. It’s one reason I can’t stand the idea of genre fiction – that out of the millions of story-telling permutations conceivable at the intersections of imagination, experience and intelligence, anyone can settle on the default. I don’t hate detective novels, I hate the idea of detective novels.

When we evaluate the best story-tellers that human history has to offer, we start holding them accountable for the decisions that they didn’t or couldn’t make: Nabokov’s novels all have a strange aristocratic bias to them, Saul Bellow gets points off for failing to include a single African-American in his portrayal of 1930s Chicago (the same setting that gave us Native Son). We compare these brilliant and ambitious people to some mythical and non-existent species of super writer. It’s beyond unfair. It might be the most exacting standard imaginable.

So, given the choice of flaws, I’ll take the messy large books every time. The ones that can’t even hope to answer all the questions that they raise. For one thing, they’re rarer and rarer these days. I think you’re being a little unfair to good ol’ Bill. He may have leaned on the concept of romantic love a little much (hey, anything to sell those tickets!), but only if you overlook the better half of his work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare and his protagonist treat the entire romantic endeavor brutally, in a manner that plays perfectly with the theme and larger plot of the play. Jane Austen may have been a more perfect writer than Tolstoy, but maybe that perfection is part of the problem; it also fosters a cloistered, self-enclosed atmosphere. I cannot accept that decision on every page to reduce a woman’s priorities – or all of human experience, for that matter – to courtship. My brain rejects that proposition at a fundamental level. I have the same problem with most novels of manners or coming-of-age stories. (If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.)

Maybe Austen isn’t a hedgehog after all, but some manner of perfectly-formed prehistoric mammal that survived the ice age and continues to thrive today, like those pygmy horses that used to live in the rainforest, a tarsier or early rodent. Tolstoy, on the other hand, is pure megafauna, whose influence can only seen today in similar mammals: a shaggy mastodon, gigantic three-toed sloth or glyptodon, foraging for vegetable matter from the highest branches, evading predators, fearful of early human hunters with their primitive stone tools, not knowing that an ominous cloud of dust and ash that will drive him to extinction, forever changing the planet, just an insignificant speck in a universe contained in one of the beads of the cat’s necklace in the closing credits for Men in Black II.

I think I just nailed it. Here come the men in black, Wes. Will Smith still has so much to teach us.

A letter to Matt concerning Austen, again

by iroqu0ispliskin


Dear Matt,

Shots fired! This is exactly the kind of debate I hoped this blog could inspire. As I was running on the beach today, my every joint in complaint, my white hot fury at your literary views was the fuel.

Fortuitously, I have at my disposal a metaphor expressly created to capture the contrast I’m looking to capture: Tolstoy is a fox; he knows many things. Austen is a hedgehog, she knows one big thing. Her thing is courtship, not marriage, which is an important distinction. There are marriages in Austen’s books, and they are often unhappy, but they exist on the outside; we never follow her heroines into the wedded state. (The great English novelist of marriage is George Eliot, of course, whom one’s female relatives can read without qualm.)

True, Tolstoy has some insights about marriage in Anna Karenina and elsewhere, because he has insights about everything. But his settled views on the topic are greatly to his discredit. It is one of the areas of human life where his puritanism got the better of him. Tolstoy is clearly the more capacious writer and probably the greater writer. But he is untidy: he never produced any book as perfect as Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose every gesture is in perfect order. All I”m trying to say is, these two are different beasts, each of whom possessing virtues that are to some extent incompatible with the virtues possessed by the other. To dismiss either would be a mistake.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Austen industry either. But if we’re looking to lay blame for the existence of poor-quality works structured around the pursuit of romantic love, we might was well lay it at the foot of Shakespeare, who got this whole enterprise going in the first place. He is the patient zero, not Austen, which is why so many of his plays are now teen movies. The popularity of Austen’s work today may partly owe to an overemphasis on marriage as the chief component of a woman’s happiness in our society. But she (and Bill Shakespeare) also deserves much of the credit for popularizing the whole modern idea of romantic marriage at all: the idea that marriage is more than a strictly pecuniary affair, and that the goal of courtship is to find a person with whom it would be tolerable (spiritually and intellectually) to spend one’s life with. If Sex and the City is the price we pay for this societal innovation, than I’m willing to make that trade.

As for the issue of edification and art, I think we are basically on the same page. To have gone through your life listening to Blurred Lines without ever hearing Illmatic would be an impoverishment. But man does not live by Tolstoy alone, and the world as been generous enough to afford us many sources of pleasure in this life. And fortunately, there are works that are both a sheer delight to read and also wise.  Austen provides several of them.


A letter to Wes about Tolstoy

by gradus22

You took Austen against Tolstoy? So you’re that guy who bring the knife to the gunfight! Leo Tolstoy is a super-heavyweight, Wes. Just for context, let’s remember that one of his lesser known works, The Kingdom of God is Within You, sparked a correspondence with an Indian lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi, and inspired versuseverythingland tag leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are some quality guys to have in your corner, Wes. Abraham Lincoln would have a hard time going up against that crew.

I have to confess that I have never been able to make it through any of Jane Austen’s books, even the one with the zombies, and even though former Marquette University star (and multiple-time academic probationer) Dwyane Wade said it was his favorite novel as part of an NBA Cares campaign. There is something about her that has always reminded me of Sex and the City; I hear the theme whenever someone starts in on the “It is a truth universally acknowledged” bit. Jane Austen also has the misfortune of being the ancestor of a lot of other stuff that continues to define gender expectations to this day: Disney princesses, magazine ads, Ken and Barbie, NYT articles that are shocked to discover that college-age women might take charge of their sex lives (Good heavens!). The avalanche of Jane Austen sequels, Mr. Darcy-as-a-vampire novels, and Jane Austen movies that are not adaptations of her books have done nothing to discourage this impression. This is the starting point, the patient zero, of the assumption that marriage is a woman’s chief goal and responsibility. It’s certainly not fair to blame all of this on Jane Austen, and I understand her work is probably the best stuff in its genre, but it has to be mentioned. I imagine my female relatives reading Jane Austen, narrowing their eyes, and then returning resolutely to their math homework. My suspicion is that Anna Karenina has more to say on marriage than Jane Austen’s work does in its entirety. (To be clear, there’s nothing pejorative about being calling Jane Austen is “less than” a book that gets consistently mentioned in the “greatest of all time” conversation.) My opinion on Jane Austen is more or less irrelevant. It’s just not for me.

But I see your point: Austen-vs.-Tolstoy isn’t a choice we have to make. I’m hard-pressed to find examples of art, literature or music that have had an overall, cumulatively negative effect on society. I can’t stand pop music, including, but not limited to: “Freshman” by the Verve Pipe (Inexplicably still on the radio! How does that happen?), anything by Katy Perry, Adam Levine’s botoxed vocals, Macklemore and “Blurred Lines” (I guess song intros are the new songs), but I would never argue that these things shouldn’t exist. Even right now, someone is enjoying the hell out of “California Girls” or “Hot ‘n Cold,” which is enough to validate their existence. Who am I to make that person feel bad?

But when it comes to literature, a person can only read a small fraction of the entire corpus in a lifetime, so sacrifices have to be made. You’ll never convince me that The Da Vinci Code is better than Foucault’s Pendulum; if the two could meet as members of the animal kingdom, Eco’s book would devour and regurgitate Brown’s book many times over. Hell, it may have done that already. I’m not offended by Dan Brown; people are always looking for something to read on the beach or after a long day of work and we all can’t emulate Augie March’s grandmother and re-read Tolstoy every year. But I am offended when people claim that the two are equivalent; It’s one thing to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger and another to try to convince the people around you (or yourself) that it’s steak. That’s just insecurity. If you’re going to have a guilty pleasure – as everyone does – you might as well own up to it and really enjoy that cheeseburger in all its artery-clogging glory.

I don’t mind Game of Thrones, but I read a dozens of fantasy novels just like it when I was still a teenager. It’s perfectly diverting and it doesn’t aspire to be anything more, but there’s not a lot of substance there. At least Martin kills off his characters when they get boring, I’ll give him that. I will never understand readers who devour multiple thousand-page fantasy novels and never try Tolstoy at least once. War and Peace always struck me as an advanced version of Lord of the Rings. They’re really very similar: both are set in far away foreign lands, populated by people with unpronounceable names who are fighting a prolonged war for their ideals. It was like reading Tolkien without the elves, with one essential difference: when I finished reading it, I was a different, better person. How could I return to fantasy novels after that? I could only hope then – and I still do now – that everyone could have the same experience. Too often literature is divvied up like breakfast cereal – it’s either good for you or it’s enjoyable, no in between. The best stuff out there does both, you just have to find it.

A letter to Matt about Pride & Prejudice

by iroqu0ispliskin

Dear Matt,

While my primary field of aesthetic expertise is giant robots, we both know that my other grand passion is English literature of Georgian era. Which means it’s time to talk about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is, pound for pound, one of the best works in the English language. My utter delight in this novel places me under the unfortunate obligation of saying something insightful or entertaining about one of the best-loved and most-discussed products of our mother tongue. It is for such obstacles, Matt, that I customarily limit my commentary to murder simulations.

I was at a wedding a few years ago, and I got involved in this argument about Austen versus Tolstoy. The argument for Tolstoy was this: while Tolstoy was interested in everything, Austen only cared about marriage.

The short answer for this argument is, well, thank god we’re not forced to choose! But the longer answer is that to me, this argument mistakes Austen’s ultimate concerns. Granted, marrying well is the chief preoccupation of every Austen novel and heroine.  Her books are literally “about” marriage: the arc of romantic love, culminating in marriage, provides the narrative structure for almost everything that happens in them.

But I think the right way to understand this preoccupation with courtship is to see how the pursuit of love provides a good arena for the exploration of morality. It’s not so much that marriage is the most important thing in life (although marrying well is certainly up there), it’s that it provides a set of circumstances in which essential elements of character come into play. Pride and Prejudice is occupied with Elizabeth’s finding of a good husband because it is through finding love that she comes to understand herself better.  

Because Pride and Prejudice, as the title implies, is chiefly about misperception. That’s why there this marvellous final scene in the book, after Darcy and Elizabeth have become engaged, where they just spend an extended walk narrating with delight how they had gotten each other so wrong. Darcy, misled by Elizabeth’s (admittedly, pretty-atrocious) family, openly insults and then materially injures the only woman of his acquaintance whose intelligence and probity could possibly provide him any wedded happiness. Elizabeth, misled by Darcy’s (admittedly, pretty-shitty) demeanour, mistakenly takes her own offence at his slights as reason to believe that Darcy is not merely an asshole, but also a scoundrel. Happily, events conspire to let these two get things right: they come to understand not only why they got each other wrong, but also what it is that is wrong about themselves. Austen thinks this task has great moral worth, and so she spent all of her adult life and considerable talents imagining how it happens.

Actually, I would defend Austen’s preoccupation with marriage for much the same reasons I routinely defend shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones  to educated laymen. As a culture we are excessively hung up on subject-matter as the chief determinant of aesthetic merit, much to our detriment. Yes, my friends: there may be some light wizardry along the way. But the purpose of good science fiction (as with romantic comedy) is that space-plane battles provide can furnish an apt context to sound certain ground notes of human character. Battlestar is essentially an extended meditation on the nature of democracy in an age of terror, and in this respect it is probably the best work of art we have (in any medium), about the post-9/11 aftermath. I would not rate Game of Thrones quite so highly, but even a casual observer can see that it is a show as ruthlessly concerned with the manipulation of  political power as it is concerned with knights, tits, and dragons.

My prejudices with regard to genre have steadily eroded over the years, Matt. I think I’ve just came to see that the best things to see and read have little to nothing in common.  Us humans have made great things about nearly anything: spies, sea voyages, gay cowboys eating pudding, anything. We should keep it up.


A letter to Wes about The Newsroom

by gradus22

Is there anything interesting left to say about Aaron Sorkin? Stuck in summer television purgatory last week, I watched the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom with an overwhelming feeling of redundancy. I’m not just referring to the impassioned on-air monologues, the walk-and-talks or Sorkinian trademark back-and-forth-dialogue, but every conceivable dimension of the show: the characters, the plot developments, the relationships, the character motivations, everything. It doesn’t just trot out the cliches, it executes them with near-perfect skill and proficiency. They are running a television clinic over there. This is the televisioniest television that ever televisioned. Aaron Sorkin made some of the best shows and movies of the 1990s, but that’s precisely the problem: he’s still making shows for the 1990s for an audience that’s moved on to 2013.

One caveat: I can’t criticize Sorkin for using the same phrases over and over again; most people, writers or not, unwittingly repeat themselves every day of their lives. You probably know someone who relies on a sarcastic “You think?” overly much in your own life. If you read enough of any single writer’s work in quick succession, you’ll develop a similar case of literary tinnitus. To a certain extent, this is really part of the appeal. HBO bought an Aaron Sorkin show and we volunteered to watch it. We would have been sorely disappointed otherwise.

But even so, The Newsroom feels like a Sorkin mixtape; a bit of SportsNight here, a dash of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip here.You find yourself starting to wonder if his next show will be about an embattled late night talk show host to make it an even. He also brings out the usual axes to grind: politics, religion, therapy, woman trouble. Maybe his next show should just be about Aaron Sorkin; cut the funhouse mirrors: the television studios designed to look like other television studios, the television personalities pretending to be other television personalities and let’s just get to it.

The man is also clearly a true believer in the power and importance of television at a time when most television viewers aren’t. There’s always been a lot of Network in Aaron Sorkin’s writing, no matter the setting. Network contains some of the best movie dialogue of its decade and it holds up to this day, but at it’s core, it’s a movie for its time, and some of its elements – the attitude towards women, for example — don’t hold up well. It’s also a type of writing asks its actors to be completely earnest about everything, and ends up rewarding charisma instead of his or her acting skill. If you’ve got a Tom Cruise-type star, a plot about the U.S. President, a big screen, a darkened theater and enforced silence, this type of writing can take you very far. The same type of earnestness, applied to characters working at a weekly television show, for God’s sake, is more than a little out of place. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had the bad luck of running against 30 Rock, a show that understood this precisely. And even at its worst, most insufferable, unlikeable moments, Studio 60 managed to be entertaining, supremely watchable and conversation-worthy. People loved tearing that show to shreds. They watched it with their friends with snarky, purchased episodes and read every joke about it on the Internet the next day.

It’s a shame, because Aaron Sorkin should be more than a punchline. He has an undeniable gift for dialogue and for finding a narrative when he steps outside of his own experience. He turned Moneyball and The Social Network – both stories that should have been unfilmable –  into excellent, compelling original movies. Well, maybe not completely original, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

A letter to Matt about civil rights and misogyny

by iroqu0ispliskin



It’s pretty common for rappers to rep hard for the American civil rights movement. I mean, it makes total sense. Hip-hop considers itself, if not the vanguard, then at least the PR wing of the contemporary civil rights struggle. (You know, the one about how 1 in 3 American black men is going to be in prison sometime during their life.) The topic is approached with respect: there’s samples from Dr. King on old Common songs, a Ghostface song that is kind of about Malcolm X. There’s even somewhat-playful references, like in Kenrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” where he elaborates a dream that has less to do with the content of his children’s character than the eiffel-tower-like proportions of his own penis.

While Lil’ Wayne may have blazed the trail when it comes to making sex jokes out of the historical suffering of Black americans, there’s something especially… systematic about Kanye’s approach on Yeezus. I mean, one reference is a crass joke – the kind of thing I’d expect out of a man with a borderline sense of humor and a nonexistent sense of propriety. But this shit happens repeatedly on Yeezus. I’ve already talked about the dubious use of the “Strange Fruit” sample on “Blood on the Leaves,” a song that also compares the separation of wives and mistresses to apartheid. But “I’m In It” really is the worst. You don’t just have “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last / Thank God almighty, they free at last!” (context), but also (I swear to God I’m not making this up) “Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”

There’s no purpose denying this that the lyrics on Yeezus are gross. Brie Walsh, one of our dozen readers, wrote a piece over on her (excellent) website expressing basic disgust at the misogyny, materialism and general human shittiness on display at the album. Justifiably pissed off at the lyrical content Kanye drops on Yeezus, though mesmerized by the music, she argues that whatever gratitude we have for this record should be directed towards Kanye’s bullpen of genius collaborators and not the misogynist at its center. This is a fair thing to say.

But for me it’s not the last thing to say. I’ll admit that as a man, I have the privilege not being fundamentally shocked by overt misogyny. It’s so obviously grotesque that it basically fails to disturb me. Like, when I hear misogyny on record it’s like I’m peering at an excised tumor behind plexiglass. I end up just wondering what kind of defect could have produced this specimen.

So I just end up wondering what Kanye is trying to do with this stuff. Part of it, I think, is that the only way he could manage to make his album more revolting to his listenership, and a more honest airing of his problems, is by mixing in the last sacred element of Black culture, one that even rappers won’t fuck with. If the aim of the album as a whole is catharsis (an aim that makes sense given the way “Bound 2”, which finishes off the record, provides an ambivalent ode to romantic commitment),  maybe Kanye is trying to come to grips with his profoundly fucked-up attitudes towards women by just giving them the ugliest possible articulation. Maybe this gives him a little too much credit.



A letter to Matt about rock music

by iroqu0ispliskin



I am  lucky to have been raised on rap music. Due to a happy accident of my upbringing, I was never cool enough to understand Nirvana. I didn’t use drugs or drink alcohol until I was well into my dotage, which prevented me from ever understanding the impulse towards headlong self-destruction that makes rock music a vital proposition. I mean, I fucked around with Dave Matthews Band, but I don’t think that counts. And so I find myself, instead, part of an unlikely generation of intensely nerdy 30-year old white guys whose formative musical experiences included listening to “Supreme Clientele” for the first time.

I call this lucky, because rock music is over. It’s not that rock music is dead, Matt. It’s just done being whatever it is. Telented people will continue to make rock records, and some of them will be really good to listen to.  Hell, I enjoy me some Japandroids, and I’m not averse to them Walkmen. But it’s been a long time since someone has made something thrillingly new on a rock record. I still love a lot of new rock music, but I don’t expect it to blow my world apart.  Which is just to say: Led Zeppelin isn’t walking through that door. This is sad, because I love the sound of scorching electric guitars as much as anything on this earth. But such is the way of things.

I was worried about rap for a while, but I shouldn’t have been. There are rap records being released these days that are saving some kid’s life, that I am sure of. One of them is Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, about which I have very little intelligent to say, except to note that the extremely high quality of Kendrick’s game goaded top-flight performances from lazy rap moguls Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Also, Drake and I share an appreciation for sundresses.  Enjoy!


A note to Wes about my summer reading

by gradus22

Hey Wes!

What’s eight hundred pages long, twenty-five years old and alternates between in-depth discussions of nuclear physics and eyewitness accounts of world war II atrocities? Need another hint? It won a Pulitzer, National book award and a National Book Critics Circle Award (that’s one PEN award short of a Philip Roth, if you’re scoring at home). It’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes! Would like to learn more? No? Too heavy for summer, you say? I’ll tell you about it anyway!

Let’s start with the title: it’s not a famous quotation put to surprisingly good use, it’s not from Shakespeare. There’s no subtitle. No attempt to sound scholarly or clever whatsoever. Just a picture of a mushroom cloud. This book is probably as intimidating and depressing as it claims to be. You can’t claim you were misled. There’s something very refreshing about that.

But as you know, I have a secret weakness for books with titles in capital letters four inches tall, books that might as well scream “Father’s Day gift” when you open them, and movies with characters who speak with clipped British accents. If you’re like me, or even if you just enjoy black-and-white photographs of men in labcoats with terrible haircuts, this is the book for you. And it is fucking great. There’s espionage and drama. Rivals are forced to work together, friends become enemies, great stuff all around. Norwegian special forces endeavor to destroy the Nazi supply of heavy water before Hitler’s scientists can initiate a nuclear chain reaction. Niels Bohr – Danish physicist, Nobel Laureate, outspoken enemy of the Nazis – is visited by a former student — now the head of the Third Reich’s nuclear physics program. Bohr, facing Nazi arrest, is later smuggled out of the country. Enrico Fermi surreptitiously spends his life savings so the Gestapo won’t notice that he’s planning on fleeing the country. I don’t know about you, but I consider events like these to be the bones of a compelling narrative.

In most popular physics books, the historical context usually gets left by the side of the road, a necessary casualty of the need to explain all the relevant concepts clearly and quickly. And most of the time, this is a very good decision. Popular readers have never clamored to to read the minutia of scientific experimentation in real time; even Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe — otherwise a perfectly readable popular science book – started to drag as soon he put himself back in the laboratory. But the nuclear bomb was much, much more than a scientific or military discovery, it changed the global political landscape irreparably, it fueled the Cold War for decades and our current age of terrorism is still running on its fumes. And the scientists involved understood that atomic bombs would probably change their world for the worse, from the first ideas of atomic bombs in H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free (life imitating art again) and the desire to set up a global initiative to control nuclear energy, to the penultimate tests in Los Alamos. Franklin Roosevelt made nuclear policy the sole province of the president, an incredible judgment call, considering that Hitler and Stalin were dismissive of nuclear research at the same time. Rhodes takes stock of the scientists just before the final nuclear tests: the most philosophical researchers are drinking heavily and playing poker, Fermi is clinical scientific, Oppenheimer is underweight and reading the Bhagavad-Gita. The nuclear tests are successful, the scientists have just created the most destructive device in human history. The component parts of Fat Man and Little Boy are being sent to the Pacific theater. And Rhodes has a couple of chapters left.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this an incredibly heavy read, literally as well as figuratively. That might be an understatement: it’s a lead balloon of a book. Rhodes doesn’t pull any punches either, especially when he discusses the bombings and their aftermath. But it’s the right way to tell a story as important and as influential as this one. Discussing the World War II bombings in the German city of Dresden, Rhodes goes right to a young American POW and eyewitness named Kurt Vonnegut. Thirty years later, Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle would be informed by fears of nuclear holocaust, describing the end of the world from a seemingly incidental scientific discovery. His narrator? A writer who set out to write a history of the atomic bomb. Life imitating art again.

A letter to Matt about Behind the Candlabra

by iroqu0ispliskin


I recently had the pleasure of watching Steve Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which I obtained illegally on the Internet. Apparently there are legal routes to obtaining this puppy in your country, which involve stealing your friends’ HBOGo password, but us adopted Turks must resort to light theft. I recommend it highly, although I also would be gunshy about watching it (as I did) on an airplane while sitting between two middleaged Lebanese men. I may be overestimating their capacity to be scandalized, but I certainly felt a bit sheepish watching Matt Damon emerge from a pool in a metal-studded white thong while flanked by two unfamiliar bearded men.

Soderbergh is kind of an anomalous director: despite having made many of the most entertaining films of the past few decades (Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovitch, and Magic Mike), I feel like he doesn’t have the reverence which would be commensurate with the quality of his directorial output. It’s not even that he lacks a signature style. Despite working in a wide variety of genres, his work is recognizable for its cool visual palette and impeccable pacing. He even has a set of personally held thematic concerns that hold across a varied catalogue, primarily his unsensational fascination with sex. Despite these features, his films have this quality of being vehicles for characters rather than vehicles for the director’s sensibility, which probably accounts for his relative lack of reverence.

There’s a lot of things to love about Behind the Candelabra, an account of a love affair between a flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorsten, a young foster-child cum animal-handler (Matt Damon). (The uniformly splendid supporting cast is not the least of them – a horrific wax effigy of Rob Lowe puts in excellent work as a pill-dispensing plastic surgeon). I could heap praise on many elements, but to me the remarkable element of the film is this: it is an intensely gay film where the fact of gayness is largely incidental.

Despite being set in an era when it was not permissible to be openly gay, the fact that the central relationship of the film is between two men mostly accidental, because the film is so effective at depicting elements of their relationship that are just features of romantic relationships in general: power, jealousy, lust, and companionship. I mean, it is obvious to me that the lived relationships of gay people are pretty much like my own in most respects, but when it comes to movies we see very few gay relationships portrayed this way. (Milk is the closest thing I could recall, but the film is so focused on the historical register that the texture of Milk’s relationships get lost in the shuffle.)

Given the unseemly mixture of roles that Scott came to occupy in Liberace’s life – he is simultaneously his lover, employee, physical mirror, adopted son, sugar baby and conscience  – the sympathy with which the relationship is portrayed verges on moral triumph. Liberace is exuberantly screwed-up, and Scott is screwed up in a vulnerable way. There are some queasy dimensions to their relations, none more queasy than Liberace’s insistence that Scott undergo plastic surgery to make him physically appear like a younger version of himself. These exist comfortably side-by-side with elements of genuine care and tenderness. There are fights about how often the couple go out and see their friends (in this case, Charo). In short, it is thoroughly plausible showbiz relationship. Over the long run it goes sour.

In fact, in terms of its overall thematic arc, the film that BTC most strongly resembles is Boogie Nights, which is also focused on the life arc of an insecure and rootless young stud who finds an unorthodox surrogate family in showbiz. Anderson’s career arc furnishes a useful point of comparison with Soderbergh; since Boogie Nights Anderson’s preoccupations have become metaphysical in their approach to character, an approach which has admittedly led to the best film of the last decade. But there is something so much more loveable and deomcratic, if less grand, in Soderbergh’s persistently humane approach. We don’t get the heaven-storming ambition in Soderbergh’s films.  But we get something as valuable: a patient scrutiny of unusual human beings as they are, conducted without moralizing. Like Liberace himself, their ordinariness gives them a cumulative transcendence.