Hazlitt Magazine

The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

Mourning My Dad, the Identical Twin

The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until he passed away.

Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

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The Nanny as Audible Ambien

Who could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?

For the past three years, I’ve stuck to a nightly ritual: I get in bed, queue up some episodes of The Nanny on YouTube, dim the lights on my screen, and schedule my computer to shut down within an hour. I’m a man prone to habits born of anxiety, but most of them are tame and ordinary, from nail biting to running my fingers through my hair. This one’s somewhat odd by comparison. Others may gravitate towards Bach or old episodes of Friends to fall asleep to each night, which makes my choice of white noise too bizarre to rationalize. Who, after all, could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?A lullaby, by definition, soothes; it is an adjuvant to the day’s stresses and horrors. Drescher’s voice, popular consensus suggests, is both stress inducing and horrifying; it has prompted some to draw the tired “fingernails on a chalkboard” comparison more than once, while Roger Ebert, rarely the kind of critic who relished in taking cheap shots at a performer, surmised that her voice “is like having ear wax removed with a small dental drill.” Drescher’s particular, peculiar way of speaking is a consistent joke throughout The Nanny, the ‘90s sitcom wherein Drescher plays the titular character (also named Fran), a bridal shop employee from Queens who accidentally becomes the caretaker for the three children of a rich Manhattan widower (Charles Shaughnessy). Drescher is divine in the show: a lithe and supple physical comedienne, contorting her face balletically to match any mood, be it dour or delighted, bemused or besotted with grief.Crucially, though, she is endowed with a voice that pitches and yaws like an airplane lifting itself from turbulence. Or, as Andy Meisler of The New York Times described it upon the show’s premiere in 1994, Drescher’s voice is “[t]he sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold-cranking on a winter morning.”The subject of Drescher’s pinched, high-larynxed voice is fodder for most of the show’s humor. In one episode, she’s held hostage during a bank robbery, and she shouts from the bank’s interiors that she’s okay. “That’s no megaphone,” her boss explains to a police officer, half-proudly. “That’s my nanny!” When she visits a sushi restaurant and unknowingly downs a gob of wasabi, unaware of its potency, her nasal passages clear. The moment is staged as something of a small miracle—that is, until her voice jolts back up to its braying, whiny default seconds later. Drescher’s voice is too nasal to be remedied by a decongestant, too intense to register on the Richter Scale. This running gag in the show has become a larger cultural aphorism: Even when Sofia Vergara parodied Drescher’s voice in a Saturday Night Live episode in 2012, her interpretation almost seemed too mild.Friends and acquaintances, I’ve found, are sheepish and reluctant to recognize any greatness in Drescher’s work on The Nanny, precisely because they can’t perceive anything past that trademark voice. (But she was nominated for an Emmy—twice! I mutter to myself, quietly aggrieved, in response.) There’s a certain futility in assigning logic to my affinity for the pleasures others might chafe at or actively try to shame me for. This almost increases my desire to hold these thrills closer, to revel in them with joy, to indulge in them when no one else is looking.For Drescher’s voice is her most vital, and intolerable, instrument, and the way she wields it is an act of self-preservation. When she began acting in The Nanny in 1994, the voice wasn’t quite there: Drescher came off as timid and warbly, almost uncertain in the manner she was going about her characterization, as if she wasn’t going all the way with the shtick. Over the course of the second season, she eased herself into her voice rather incrementally; it became more robust and round. By the third season, Drescher embraced the act thoroughly. There was no sense of gurgling tension or unease with the voice. It was fully hers.*I’ve never considered myself the kind of gay man who likes his dames grand. I have little patience for Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958); I find Mommie Dearest (1981) dry, colorless, neither funny nor moving. My track record might suggest that I couldn’t find anything humorous or sympathetic about Drescher, the broadest of broads, but here we are.The Nanny was an uncredited extra in my childhood in the same way Cheers or Full House had also been: I was vaguely aware of its existence, yet I hadn’t watched it concertedly until its syndication afterlife on Nick-at-Nite in the late aughts. I don’t know if it’s quite a coincidence that my mother and I are the ones who began watching The Nanny together, yet we watched it with quasi-religious fervor. My mother found Drescher irresistibly appealing in the show.This was a household in which my mother’s voice constituted its own punchline. My mother’s voice remains unconscionably loud, muting all other elements in the room. It is a statement. My late father and I often made fun of her for how loudly she spoke, and she participated, like Drescher, in this pile-on. She wasn’t simply in on the joke; she encouraged it. My mother knew she was loud and didn’t quite care, for she saw no shame in having that voice.*I started watching The Nanny on YouTube shortly after graduating from college three years ago. The activity began as a way to pass time in the lonely hours before bed. Yet it grew, without my realizing it until much later, into a fierce bid to fight my longing for my mother’s company, a yearning that had somehow grown intense after I’d left school. Call it self-infantilizing, but watching the show was a leisurely pursuit I’d long engaged in with my mother. Besides, my first apartment didn’t have a television.Episodes of The Nanny tend to drift on and off YouTube, subject to copyright law. As a way to circumvent this law, some uploaders have taken to adjusting the pace and pitch of the show, making Drescher sound easier on the eardrums. Her voice slows down to the rhythm of molasses or gets quick, fussy, almost Chipmunk-like. These versions are unwatchable. They forfeit what I consider the integrity of the show’s DNA, contained in Drescher’s incorrigibly loud voice. Her voice overreaches; it is extravagant. But the point of indulgence is to find pleasure, and to give others permission to access it.I’ve long felt wary about grafting some imagined “queer sensibility” onto my reading of the female performers I love, for it seems too dangerous a position to defend. I am a man, after all, and this decisive fact hinders my identification with the experiences of women, and the way certain female performers give themselves to the screen. I’m tempted make an exception with Fran Drescher, for I hold her close to my heart in the way I do my best friend, my mother, the woman whose loud voice I’ll hear in my head long after she dies. What others may find about Drescher’s voice to be deliriously displeasing is my audible Ambien, massaging my worries into the oblivion of the night, as soothing as the sound of a mother singing her son to sleep.
The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

Charlotte Rampling, 1973, nude, sits atop a wooden table at the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles in the room in which matadors once dressed for battle. Legs ajar, wine in hand, body turned away, she squares her unsmiling eyes with the camera (and Helmut Newton behind it), as if to say: “This is not for you.”To Sofia Coppola, this is what it means to be a woman. As a girl raised in Napa on a rambling ranch, her world-famous father travelling the planet, her mother alongside him,11“Why can’t we just be normal?” Sofia asked. this girl, the one who has always been defined by her style before anything else, considered fashion magazines her “link to the rest of the world.”22Vogue, 2003 She covered her walls in their images—mostly thin, mostly beautiful, mostly rich white women. The photo of Rampling came from a 1974 issue of Vogue. Sofia wrote about it for the magazine in 2003 and kept it into her 30s; deep into womanhood, she was still reminding herself who she wanted to be. Even today, more than a decade later—with six films behind her and two children in front—we still sense that photo watching over her, still sense her incipience. “Is she an eternal adolescent because she’s always primarily read as her father’s daughter?” asks Fiona Handyside, author of Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. If she is, her heroines come by it naturally. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and her most recent film, the Cannes-lauded Beguiled, are all coming of age tales featuring young, privileged white women—pre-adolescents, actual adolescents, delayed adolescents—none of whom ever really come of age. To Coppola, the image of Rampling is, after all, just that, an image, the ideal that can never square with reality. “Girls are seen as really special and exciting and full of potential,” Handyside says of Sofia’s cinema, “womanhood is this thing that closes that down. So why would you want to grow up?”*To hear Eleanor Coppola tell it, her daughter was a typical adolescent who denigrated her mother and deified her friends. Sofia has said herself that she was “a little too cool to be a teenager,” that she wanted to grow up, felt more suited to adulthood. When she wasn’t traveling with her family, her youth was occasionally caught on film. In her first pubescent role—Tim Burton’s 1984 monochromatic short Frankenweenie—she is a gangly pseudo-teen credited as “Domino,”33She also used the pseudonym for her father’s film The Cotton Club that same year but has never explained why. who wears a long, blond obvious wig, a bow and a gingham dress—the platonic ideal of the American girl. She is also the only girl, a Dorothy type surrounded by munchkin boys, who exercises side by side with her Barbie doll (Barbie, naturally, being her one female friend). Two years later, 15-year-old Coppola acted through braces in Peggy Sue Got Married as the girl scout sister of Kathleen Turner. “Teenagers are weird and you’re the weirdest,” she says, her lackadaisical delivery already secured in place.Around this time, according to her mother, Sofia became a fixture at her friends’ homes, claiming her own no “fun.” This teenage rebellion culminated in her flying off to Paris at 15 to intern at Chanel over two summers.  “Every inch of her wants to break out of an ordinary routine,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. And she did. That same year, Sofia abruptly stopped being a teenager, though not of her own volition. Twelve days after her birthday, her oldest brother, Gian-Carlo (“Gio”), died unexpectedly at the age of 22 in a boating accident.  “[W]hen my brother died, my teenage years got interrupted,” Sofia told The Hollywood Reporter. Later, when the family was organizing Gio’s things, Sofia slid into his white silk jacket. “It smells like him,” she said.A little while after that a dude named Dave Markey became a sort of surrogate older brother to Sofia. Three years before he became known as the director of The Year Punk Broke, Markey was an underground filmmaker. When they met through mutual friends in the late '80s, Sofia was a fan of his low budget teen-girl-runaway-rock-band extravaganza Lovedolls Superstar, which featured early-days Sonic Youth. “She had already seen some of my work and was really into it so it was very flattering for me at the time,” says Markey, whose band stayed at the Coppola ranch. Sofia looked up to Markey, who was in his mid-20s, and he turned her onto “psychotropic cinema,” escorting her to Laemmle’s Monica Premiere Showcase (as it was then known) in Los Angeles to see Carnival of Souls. Herk Harvey’s only film, a goth-cult horror from 1962, is about a beautiful blond organist who exists in a sort of post-car-accident limbo—“I had no place in the world, no part of the life around me,” she says—and is drawn to an abandoned amusement park. “I remember that left a really big impression on her,” says Markey. “She was really blown away by that film.”But several months later Sofia had no time for rep cinema. At that point, she was handed the biggest responsibility of her life so far: taking Winona Ryder’s place. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, by then a well established New Hollywood force having helmed the mobstalgic Godfather franchise, had based the role of Mary—mafia alum Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) daughter—on Sofia. So when Ryder, who had already headlined several films, fell ill, Sofia was the obvious understudy, despite having never actually studied acting. In her first scene in The Godfather Part III, sitting in a pew with a scarf on her head, an enigmatic smile on her face, Sofia looks every drop the Virgin Mary. But internally she suffered from a severe case of impostor syndrome and overworked herself to the point of tears. Sofia knew she was not welcome. A Paramount executive disputed her casting, the other actors did too, and people advised Eleanor she was abusing her child. Mary folded under the pressure. In the film, Sofia’s delivery is flat, almost bored, her lines overlapping those of others, her weak presence only underscored by the power of Pacino’s. After Mary is fatally shot, she falls to her knees and says, “Dad?”44This is the second time Francis killed off his daughter on screen—the first was when she was gunned down as a street urchin in The Cotton Club. It ended up being a metaphor—she trusted her father and the critics killed her for it.That same year, 1990, Sofia appeared in Markey’s music video for Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce.” He shot her on Super 8 in front of Hollywood’s Max Factor building one afternoon after she designed her own costume and applied her own makeup—thick brows, black lips, Chanel—her exaggerated wide-eyed sneer reminiscent of Cry Baby’s Hatchet-Face. “I just had the concept to dress up Sofia as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest,” Markey says. “So she’s actually channelling Faye Dunaway.” Around that time Sofia also befriended Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, whose fashion label, X-Girl, she would soon join. “Kim inspired me because she tried all the things that interested her,” she told Elle. “She just did what she was into.” As for herself, Sofia wasn’t sure what she was into. It was an embarrassment of riches. Fashion, maybe? She was in charge of the outfits on a film called The Spirit of ‘7655She had previously designed the Chanel jr. costumes for “Life Without Zoe,” her father’s maligned Eloise-like segment in the 1989 film New York Stories, which Sofia also helped write. and at one point considered studying costume design. “She was really into that,” says Markey. But a year later Sofia was onto a third college and other interests. “I want to take photography and painting and learn more skills,” she told her mother. So she studied art history and co-founded a clothing company, Milk Fed, in Japan. “I became a dilettante,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what it would be.”[[{"fid":"6700856","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Sonic Youth - Mildred Pierce","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The one thing Sofia didn’t study was film—she figured she could ask her dad anything—and it wasn’t until her late twenties that she started talking about directing. “I’m gonna make a movie, it’s gonna be fun, I’m so excited,” Markey remembers her saying. The movie was Lick the Star (1998) and it lasted no more than 15 minutes, but it would become the prototype for her entire oeuvre. Co-written by best friend Stephanie Hayman, this black-and-white sliver of Heathers-style precociousness sees a bunch of high schoolers poisoning their male harassers (the title inverts their motto, Kill the Rats). “Everything changes, nothing changes, the tables turn and life goes on,” the queen bee scrawls on a scrap of loose leaf and sticks into An American Biography. Adolescent torpor, slo-mo saturnalia, gendered spaces, in her first film Sofia had already hinted at what would become her signature tropes.66Her two previous music videos—Walt Mink’s “Shine” (1993) and The Flaming Lips’ “This Here Giraffe” (1996)—also touched on these motifs. “Movies incorporated all the things I liked,” she told W. “It was the first time I felt like something clicked professionally for me.”*A redhead lies on her back in the grass, her arms outstretched like an exhausted Christ, orange hair matching the orange in the sun-soaked green, the blossoms on her borrowed dress nestled in the ground. Barely clutching a camera in her left hand, the girl’s right arm reaches out of frame, perhaps searching for something to hold onto. She is in a sort of rapture. She smiles, maybe.William Eggleston’s 1975 image of a young woman on Quaaludes was one of the many works of the time—alongside Bill Owens’ Suburbia and Sam Haskins’ Playboy portraits—that inspired Sofia Coppola’s first feature. From the beginning, she used a mood board to set the stage, which is why her films, if nothing else, are as eternally moody as a prom at midnight. Her 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides languidly embraced a quintet of teen sisters from suburbia whose burgeoning sexuality is stifled by their Catholic parents’ clapboard take on gothic seclusion.[[{"fid":"6700786","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"288","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Born in 1971, Sofia’s aesthetic is largely nostalgic for the decade of her prepubescence, so it follows that her first film would be set in the same era. She understood the Virgin Suicides’ feeling of alienation and loss—of time, of innocence, of relationships—having felt the same way in her nomadic youth. “I liked that the story seemed to capture what it was like to be that age,” she told Interview, “something that I haven’t seen many people get right.” Coppola captured the impulsive guilelessness of adolescence by hiring non-actors she found on the streets of her Toronto set, directing one of the neighborhood boys in the film to dine with the Lisbons for the first time, for the first scene, script free. Writes producer Julie Costanzo, via email, “she opted for him to experience the bewilderment and discomfort.”For Lux Lisbon, however, the sister who is ardently pursued by the local rake and then just as coolly dropped, Coppola chose a professional. Kirsten Dunst, around 17 at the time, was picked for her liminality—“She’s really a kid,” said Coppola in Combustible Celluloid in 2000, “but she’s also womanly”—thus began the director’s trend of casting white (often blond) former child starlets. Dunst was followed by Scarlett Johansson was followed by Elle Fanning was followed by Emma Watson, all actresses who, despite their advancing ages, eternally invoke youth. Sofia based the look of the girls on her childhood best friend’s sister, Leslie Hayman, the freckled towhead she eventually cast as sibling Therese. “[W]hen I was in high school, the pretty girls were blonde and perfect,” Sofia said. “Those were the girls the guys were after.” She was not one of them. Even Coppola’s own mother wrote of her, “She is beautiful in an imperfect way.” Having broken her nose in junior high during a ball game, Sofia remembers appreciating Anjelica Huston’s promise that she would grow into it. The advice was particularly stark coming from the fellow daughter of a famous director (John Huston) who had an equally miserable first experience working with her father. [[{"fid":"6700791","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]While the male gaze defines Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, in Coppola’s film the girls exist beyond it. As such, she explores the “imprisonment of being a girl” but also its potency. “I really loved how the boys were looking at the girls and the girls had this kind of power and mystique over them,” Coppola told Rookie, “and I was interested in how girls could get stuck in lives that were too small for them.” In the Lisbons’ presence, the boys are virtually emasculated, mere subjects in the girls’ home, under their spell even in their own car. Not even Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the magic man, has command over the younger Lux, who unbeknownst to him has his name branded on her underwear (he is already where he wants to be but only she knows it). “I often thought of Sofia’s style and assuredness as more about identifying the absence of what was transpiring in a scene, rather than the presence,” says producer Julie Costanzo. So Lux owns Trip, until he owns her, disappearing while she slumbers post-coitally, the guy who is objectified refusing to be, as the girls joke, “They’re just going to raffle us off.” But they refuse too. By killing themselves, the Lisbons reject their restricted lives. “What do girls have? Well, they have their bodies,” says Handyside. “That’s [their] weapon, that’s the thing that [they] can possibly use or indeed withdraw.”[[{"fid":"6700796","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia Coppola might have withdrawn herself had the press responded to The Virgin Suicides as they had to The Godfather Part III, but after a warm reception at Cannes, she was reborn. The 28-year-old director was no longer merely Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, she was an individual. Emboldened by the response in France, she turned further inward for her next film.Lost in Translation was, of course, about loss, too, but of a different kind. A young married philosophy grad finds herself aimlessly wandering the halls of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, crying long distance to a “friend” back home who doesn’t seem to hear, her absentee husband equally oblivious. When she first visited Japan, Coppola told The New York Times, she “felt like teenage girls were running the whole country,” which makes it an apt setting for a delayed adolescent like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson was in fact only 17 during filming). The overgrown, subdued Eloise soon comes across a famous actor (Bob, played by Bill Murray) in the midst of his own midlife crisis. They karaoke, party, sushi, watch late night movies. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,” she tells him, before he tells his own wife, “I’m completely lost.” The first time they see each other, in an elevator packed with locals, Charlotte and Bob catch each other’s eye and share a smile—they are each other’s compass. “To me that’s like the most comforting or best thing in life,” Coppola told The Guardian, “when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone.”[[{"fid":"6700801","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"320","width":"576","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Though the press speculated about how autobiographical the film actually was, Coppola responded in Filmmaker, “There’s a part of me in that character.” The truth is, for a long time she was as lost as Charlotte. It is thus unsurprising that her most autobiographical work would be vocal about its search for personhood, a leitmotif that permeates all of her films (without, however, the oft-associated finding of it). “I always like characters who are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity,” she told Rookie. This was the all-encompassing theme of her life for about a decade, when she was afraid that, like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, she would end up a nothing, a nobody—it’s a fear she reflects on screen over and over again. “To me, the films are about how everyone has to decide how they want to live their life,” she told the Boston Phoenix, “as opposed to how they’re supposed to.” Supposed to. For young women the expectation becomes even more loaded. And Marie Antoinette is the biggest supposed to of all.Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Madame Deficit, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette follows the Austrian dauphine from the age of 14, when she is sent to France to become queen at a time when she knows more about pugs than politics, to the French Revolution. The director told Vanity Fair she could identify with the 18th century royal, “coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity.” The moment Sofia was born, bestowed upon her was what Handyside refers to as “a simultaneous burden and privilege.” Barely out of the womb, she was cast as a baby boy in The Godfather, cast, in a sense, as heir to the Coppola dynasty both on screen and off. The way her image was co-opted by her family, Antoinette’s was by Versailles (though at least Sofia’s uterus remained her own). “I think there is a sense in which she is debating her own past,” says Handyside of Sofia’s films, “and the way she was commandeered as image.” Each of her heroines are found in a role they have not really chosen, the confines of their lives symbolised by their entrapment within houses, hotels, schools, castles. “I think there’s an element of the female experience that you have certain boundaries,” Coppola recently told Film School Rejects. But her mother thinks it might be more personal. “Perhaps Sofia is part of all these women,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “Growing up she was in a way a princess in Francis’s kingdom. On his sets she was treated as the adored daughter of the boss, a child of a celebrity. She was not seen as a thinking, feeling person with her own identity and acute perceptions.”As an adult, Sofia erects gothic edifices within the construction site of contemporary feminism. Her films interrogate a reality in which women are told they are equal, yet know they are not. Without an alternative, says Handyside, “you repeatedly get these fantasies as the answer.” The moments of acedia in her films—on pillows,77“Nobody throws girls on pillows like Sofia Coppola,” Nathan Lee wrote in Film Comment. in grass, on each other—the confetti-fuelled fetes, the forlorn looks out of fishbowl windows, the sly winks that shatter the fourth wall, the floaty sojourns—Petit Trianon, underwater tea, travel snaps—all luxuriate within the bounds of femininity. As Handyside puts it, “it’s just killing time,” a suspended reality as you yourself are slowly killed. In Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease writes that modern literary depictions of boredom are “an acknowledgment of the profound dissatisfaction of a group of people who found themselves on the wrong side of agency, interest, and meaning.” Sofia’s “girliest film set” thus focusses on Antoinette’s teen years—“the earlier, fun days,” according to the director—icing the merry monotony in a “cookies and cake” palette. “You’re considered superficial and silly if you’re interested in fashion,” Sofia told Vogue. “But I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” Frivolity itself speaks volumes, Antoinette’s tight corsets, for instance, are tight for a reason—privilege means more even when you want less. Though the Queen of Versailles is the quintessential symbol of white privilege, Sofia believed she deserved as much of a voice as she did, particularly considering the din of public perception. Hence the scene in which Marie Antoinette is appalled by the rumour (which persists to this day) that she scoffed at the poor, “Let them eat cake.” Handyside believes Sofia is drawn to ostensibly unsympathetic women like Antoinette and the girls of the Bling Ring because, regardless of their means, “we’re all in a culture which doesn’t have answers” for women.[[{"fid":"6700811","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"552","width":"1024","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Spent after Marie Antoinette, Sofia took time off to bring up her first child. It was her daughter who inspired her to write her second original screenplay, Somewhere, about a prominent actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), and his relationship—or non-relationship—with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). This is Sofia’s first male hero, but, aside from his gender, he is not so different from her heroines. Sure, he objectifies women—“[Sofia] has a lot of sympathy for male foibles,” says Handyside—but he feels as lost as his predecessors, once again within a rambling palace (in this case, the crumbling decadence of the Chateau Marmont). Johnny bides his vague time falling asleep on the women he is with, texting the ones he is not, otherwise sitting constricted in a plaster mask recalling Antoinette’s girdles and crying on the phone like Charlotte to an unsympathetic listener. “I’m fucking nothing,” he says. “I’m not even a person.” His future, like everyone else’s, is unclear as he leaves his car behind in the middle of nowhere and yells to his daughter under the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” But his words are only for show. Only the audience hears them—they are not for her. This as opposed to the final confidence shared between Lost in Translation’s Bob and Charlotte, which we are not privy to, but which somehow equips Charlotte to face the future. In Cleo’s case, there is no roadmap, she is as lost as Charlotte was.[[{"fid":"6700816","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Coppola designed Cleo as “a kid in this grown-up world” who in the end is as adrift as her father, crying over her absentee mother, abandoned by both of them. Her happiness can only fluorish in the interim, prior to this epiphany, within the ignorance of innocence, “where being a girl is wonderful and it buys you this space of transcendence and evasion from adult problems…but the price is that you’re never allowed to grow up,” says Handyside.  There is nothing worth knowing beyond this, the end being the refusal to continue—to die, to walk away, to be escorted off the premises. “I think the feminism in the films,” Handyside adds, “is precisely that there is a refusal of what womanhood means.” The way her father is nostalgic for the old country, Sofia is nostalgic for youth—an idealized sanitized notion of youth, anyway—in which you don’t have to know who you are, decisions don’t yet have to be made, and there are only feelings and experiences and being. This is why she always chooses the girl’s potential—an eternal becoming—over the woman’s reality. Because how do you commit to adulthood when you don’t know where you stand?Coppola wasn’t planning on another film about kids. But then along came the Bling Ring, a group of privileged California youths who burgled celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 and stole about $3 million worth of possessions. As Coppola told Indiewire, “there’s kind of just the universal teenagers getting in trouble and wanting to be part of a group—that part I could totally relate to.” This film parts ways with the rest by depicting adolescents who are not trying to get out, but instead trying to break in. Versailles is what they want, that sparkling assembly line of shoes and clothes and money. Their homes are a uniform affluent fawn—a peach-hued image of Calabasas the inspiration—but the ones they breech are rich in technicolour. “We had so many beautiful gorgeous things,” says the character Marc in the film.[[{"fid":"6700821","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"478","width":"680","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Bling Ring was a comedown after Somewhere, which had won the Golden Lion at Venice. The film was particularly criticized for erasing Diana Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who did not have U.S. citizenship and was threatened with deportation over her involvement in the Ring. Though Tamayo was reportedly small enough to get through the doggie doors of celebrity homes, in the film it’s the character Nicki’s sister (Georgia Rock) who accesses Megan Fox’s abode this way—Tamayo, and the fact that her conviction could have lead to her expulsion from the country,88She plead guilty and received three years’ probation instead. did not appear on screen. Korean-American Katie Chang, who played the character of Rebecca Ahn in the film, based on the real-life Rachel Lee, remains the rare exception in Coppola's parade of pale patrician faces. “I think Coppola seems to be suggesting, you don’t have to necessarily be white, but being white really helps,” says Handyside. It certainly hasn’t hurt her. As a teen, Coppola had thick dark eyebrows, a long mahogany mane and a pronounced nose, but as she got older, her hair got progressively lighter and shorter, her eyebrows thinner, her makeup and clothes more discreet. “If you think about Italianness, it’s associated with excess, with sexiness,” says Handyside. “She’s almost reinvented herself as a wasp.” Sofia is not Versace, she is Marc Jacobs, and her characters follow suit, often dressed in powder blue, often blanched out to make them even more alabaster than they are, the kind of women who Helmut Netwon might have photographed had they been old enough to qualify.Those who do not pass, do not make the cut. The Beguiled is the latest example. The second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel unravels during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school that is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded soldier. The plot is largely preserved, the convalescent, McBurney (Colin Farrell), seducing three women—Nicole Kidman’s commanding head mistress, Kirsten Dunst’s shy teacher, Elle Fanning’s student temptress—who choose not to fight amongst themselves, but to unite against the sybarite. In so doing, the controlled, civilized, quiet confines of their school erupt into a chaotic, barbaric mess of carnage. “Control, civilization, quietness, they’re about femininity,” says Handyside, “they’re also about very strict classical WASP norms of femininity.” The operative word being WASP.[[{"fid":"6700851","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"268","width":"477","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia’s Beguiled excises the shrewdest character in Cullinan’s story—the school’s slave, Mattie (played arrestingly by blues singer Mae Mercer as Hallie in the 1971 adaptation)—with the film’s only nod to the Civil War’s racial foundation reduced to “the slaves left.” Coppola has said in several interviews that her focus was specifically on the power dynamics between men and women. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she wrote Mattie out, “because I didn’t want to treat that subject lightly,” adding more recently to BuzzFeed that Mattie’s was “a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story.”999“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can,” Sofia told the site. “It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.” Presumably that is also why she turned the book’s biracial teacher, Edwina, into Kirsten Dunst. But Edwina’s whitewashing is particularly puzzling considering her background would have been perfectly positioned within Coppola's oeuvre-wide theme of identity. In Cullinan’s novel, Mattie surmises that the reason Edwina is so isolated from the rest of the school is “because she don’t know who she is—she don’t know what she is.” In the film, we are meant to believe that it is simply Edwina’s oppressive timidity that has separated her from the faces that look exactly like hers. But you can’t help hearing the strains of Beyonce’s “Sorry” when you see Fanning on Instagram recreating a scene from Lemonade—The Beguiled shot on the same Louisiana plantation1010“I didn’t see Lemonade, but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Sofia told The Los Angeles Times.—casting herself as Beyonce and Dunst as Serena Williams, both of these white actresses clothed in antebellum cotton.*Sofia Coppola, 2017, sits on a winding staircase surrounded by femininity, pre-pubescent to middle aged. Drenched in light, dressed in pale ruffled ankle-length frocks, frozen in place, the seven girls and women around her gaze out from their cramped quarters with various conflicting expressions. The director, 45, is in the middle, white shirt, black pants, white runners, androgynous, the contemporary center of control around which all these females orbit. Coppola is as quiet in this photo as she is in real life. She is so soft spoken that her mother regularly had to strain to hear her when she was a teenager. And when her father commanded her to speak up on set, she did not. Neither do her heroines. Even Marie Antoinette, as loud as she is in dress, often holds up a fan to obscure her mouth. “There’s a sense in which they are saying, ‘You know what? You don’t have to shout,’” says Handyside. Sofia pushes silence, privileging imagery over dialogue, her scripts sparse, her visuals abundant. When I interviewed her at the end of 2010, her sentences would trail off, dissipating into the ether, often unsatisfying—too brief, too superficial. I described her then as “disconnected,” and there continues to be a sense that she keeps herself disengaged from the world (even outside the media). “I think it’s a survival strategy,” says Handyside. “I think sometimes she gives people enough rope to hang themselves with just by not responding.”It is also a way of performing femininity. Coppola will play the submissive, placating her male actors in particular, but inevitably obtaining from them what she wants, sometimes to the point of objectification. “It’s just like my fantasy to get him to sit there and dress him exactly how I want him to be and do everything just exactly how I want,” she said of Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation (he nicknamed her The Velvet Hammer). She quietly inverts the male gaze, in Lost turning John Kacere’s painted portrait of a woman’s rear into a moving image that barely moves, laying it across the screen a spell too long, prompting us to question our own gaze. In Somewhere a bed-sprawled Johnny Marco is surrounded by naked gyrating women but sees none of them. In The Virgin Suicides, a muscular demigod floats in a pool of electric blue, in The Bling Ring it is the un-sculpted boy who is self conscious. In The Beguiled too, we see McBurney’s body—caressed by the light, like a Roman statue—immobile, entirely under the power of the women around him.1111“Colin was a really good sport about being our token male,” Sofia told Vanity Fair. “He knew that he was the object.“Like so many of her heroines, Sofia Coppola seduces to control. She learned this, no doubt, being surrounded by men—father, brothers, cousins—ensconced in an industry guided by their sex. She says she was indulged growing up but it was an indulgence stemming from a stereotypical notion of femininity. Her father, his physical presence almost as overbearing as his psychological girth, is ubiquitous in behind-the-scenes footage of her first three films, manspreading on set, making suggestions even after his daughter has already secured an Oscar. Even filmmaker Wes Anderson, an old friend of Sofia’s, told The New York Times, “You want to look out for her. She turns everyone into her big brother.” Of the more than 20 people I contacted about Sofia Coppola, less than a handful agreed to speak with me. In the wake of The Godfather Part III, this is how she likes it. This is her own story, why would she not want to direct it?Her own story, the way she tells it, repeatedly returns to adolescence, those years which were abruptly taken from her, which she continuously reclaims on screen. To Coppola, womanhood is imprisonment, girlhood is freedom, and her feminism lies in her refusal to compromise the latter. She will not, for instance, adopt the “feminist” label, despite her constant devotion— albeit a devotion that is blind to intersectionality—to female identity. When she became the second woman in the history of Cannes to win best director for The Beguiled (a film with a set in which, according to Variety, women outnumbered men), she thanked another feminist icon, Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “being a role model and supporting women filmmakers.” But her inspiration was Jo Ann Callis, specifically her 1977 image “Woman with Blue Bow.” The photo shows an angelic blond with curly hair, her head thrown back, only her neck and nose visible. Around her throat sits an aquamarine satin bow which connects to her lacy white strapless dress. Look closer and it seems the ribbon is forming a groove in her neck, as though it is a fraction too tight. Behind her is water coloured wallpaper of blue leaves, three golden birds flying around her as though she is some kind of S&M Cinderella. “It reminded me of the feeling of femininity and frustration I wanted to achieve in The Beguiled,” Sofia said.“Nous sommes des filles”—“We are girls”—say the students in the film as they conjugate the French verb but do little more to project their gender. Sofia chose to re-adapt The Beguiled in order to express “the women’s point of view,” but the story does not really change. The women remain pale specters cut off from the dark war raging outside. In their decrepit estate they have become arrested in time with only McBurney to remind them of the outside world, one which promises excitement, but also brutality. To preserve their innocence, they must destroy this man, though in so doing they destroy their own prospects. Like a caged beast, McBurney trashes his bedroom after losing his leg at the hands of the women. In protest, he screams, “I’m not even a man anymore!” but it is a mere storm in a teacup, the same one that brews inside these women. To little effect. The film ends where it starts, with a girl searching for sustenance, with the women dragging a man in and then out of their coven. Sofia’s heroines have tried to get out and tried to get in, but this is the first time they simply choose to stay put, a sort of cynical acceptance of their lot. The last scene of The Beguiled shows the body of McBurney outside the closed gates, behind which the women watch from the steps of their crumbling institution, ashen and still, in a sense as dead as he is; yet, even then, nowhere near as free.
Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

1.It was my first shift of Transportation Security Officer on-the-job training at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car-salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own bins, and removing shoes, jackets, and belts. After fifteen minutes of that, it was onto the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector to document checker to exit to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulets, and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks downstairs in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we’d listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly, former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform leant her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A slow cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. I’d walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted, “This guy is an impostor!”I looked up and saw Gene, a friend and retired UAlbany professor, about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.But I was the only one who flinched. I helped Gene through and quietly told him we’d talk another time. I watched him reunite with his wheelchair-bound wife—she’d been sent through the metal detector instead of the scanner. I heard her ask him the obvious question: “What’s Ed doing here?”Again Gene spoke at full volume, as if the checkpoint were his lecture hall, though I knew his wife had perfectly good hearing. “He’s researching a novel!” Gene shouted.The supervisor did not rush over to apprehend me. Steven was unfazed. “Is that grandpa a friend of yours?” he asked.“He’s a sweet guy,” I said. I expected him to ask for more details, but he was already focusing on the next passenger. Still, for the rest of the shift, and for many shifts to come, those stubborn questions stayed with me: What am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Am I researching a novel?2.When I sent in my application to work for the TSA, my father was on the brink of eighty and I was struggling to communicate with him. Too often, when I talked about him with my own son, I told stories about my childhood that were laced with resentment. I emphasized how many chores and rules there were around the house, how my father was often on the road (he was a traveling textile salesman), how he had a talent for finding flaws in whatever I happened to be doing, from setting the table to stacking the firewood to filling the water pitcher.My father never went to college. He went to work for his father after high school and, aside from a brief stint in the Air Force Reserves, he worked in his father’s business for almost his entire life. Those two Schwarzschild men shared a dank, basement office for decades and then, after my grandfather died, my father had that office all to himself for a few decades more. In other words, he was a grinder. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him truly relax. If pressed, I’d say the closest he ever got was when he was in the basement of our house, in the workroom he shared with the furnace and the hot water heater. He could sit in there for hours, painstakingly assembling and painting model airplanes.He loved to fly. When he’d signed up for the Air Force Reserves, he’d hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a paratrooper instead.Whenever he flew on a commercial flight, he’d bring home one of the plastic emergency cards as a souvenir. He kept them in folders he could clip into three-ring binders. He encouraged his family and friends to help him enlarge his collection if they happened to be traveling. Over the years, I brought him dozens; they made him, for a moment, smile with approval. After decades of collecting, he had a shelf or two of binders, all of them filled with brightly colored illustrations of emergency exits, seat belts, and inflatable slides gently delivering passengers from planes to open water. Many of the airlines no longer exist. If you’d like to see the entire collection, along with the model airplanes, they now sit on display at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania.Which is all a way to say that maybe if I worked a grinding airport job for a while, I’d come to understand my father better, and resent him less, before it was too late. At the same time, sometimes I thought applying for a job with the TSA was evidence of a mid-life crisis. I was closing in on fifty, my son was three, and I’d been working as an English professor for seventeen years. Every day offered evidence of how little control I had over the world around me. Call it the mid-life crisis of an authority-seeker. Instead of speeding around recklessly in a shiny red sports car, I’d take an entry-level, rule-bound job, work the 5-9 a.m. shift, and learn how to divest tired travelers of their plastic water bottles. Then I’d race over to the university and bring a whole new perspective to my classes in contemporary literature and fiction writing.The fact that I’d become a father myself also drew me to the job. What does it mean to be a parent during the “War on Terror”? I felt as haunted by the collective tragedy of 9/11 as anyone, but I was also haunted by the ways daily living in the United States had changed from 9/12 forward. I bristled at the bunkering of public buildings (like the state capitol buildings a few blocks away from my house), the pervasiveness of surveillance and searches, the sudden expansion of airport checkpoints. When I used to fly home to Philadelphia from St. Louis or San Francisco or elsewhere, my father would be there at the gate, waiting to embrace me, eager to hear details about the flight. When it was time to leave again, he’d walk me to the gate and wait with me, waving farewell as I boarded the plane. My students were growing up in a very different world, as was my son. These days only those with tickets can be with us as we board and deplane. Our farewells and reunions usually take place in the shadow of a checkpoint.3.Day after day, shift after shift, I kept trying to feel in charge at the checkpoint. I found that, in some ways, my time as a writer and professor provided good training for most duties of a Transportation Security Officer. Years of grading papers meant I could check documents at a good clip. Thanks to a specialization in film studies, I’d spent a good deal of time examining images on screen, searching for unusual, hidden, crucial details—fine practice for working the x-ray machine. And my first teaching position, right out of graduate school, took me to a small Southern women’s college, where I learned a certain genteel politeness—politeness that served me well as I searched through bags while harried passengers stood by, scowling and impatient.No part of my teaching experience, however, prepared me to perform pat-downs.Back at that Southern women’s college, I’d learned that the only really acceptable form of student/faculty physical contact was a high-five. On rare occasions, there were fist bumps, but these risked the perception of violence. Now, every morning, as part of my job, I was supposed to run my hands up and down the legs, torsos, and arms of my fellow citizens. I was supposed to do this in such a way that no one would feel groped.My fellow rookies and I practiced on each other first, patting each other down multiple times. There was nervous, lighthearted banter about touching junk and how much worse it would be in North Korea and why the men finished practicing before the women did. Our cheerful instructors offered guidance. They said the procedure was clinical. Exert the same pressure you use to spread peanut butter on a sandwich. Say clearly what you’re going to do and then do it. We’d grow numb to it before long, they assured us.As we practiced, a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” kept running through my mind: Sometimes I think this whole world/Is one big prison yard/Some of us are prisoners/The rest of us are guards.How could I put my hands on someone else like this?And yet, was there a better way to keep our airplanes safe?Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations” offered this: Neither a servant nor master I…I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.But how could I perform pat-downs in such a way that they’d foster both security and compassion?I remembered Newjack, Ted Conover’s book about the year he worked as a Corrections Officer in Sing Sing. Day after day, he’d had to do much more than the TSA’s standard pat-down and he voiced his worries about the consequences of his actions:“Leave it at the gate,” you hear time and again in corrections. Leave all the stress and bullshit at work; don’t bring it home to your family. This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.I didn’t think I’d be able to work a year at the checkpoint, but I wanted to stay at the job long enough to understand more fully what had drawn me to it. I hoped my soul—as well as the souls of all the passengers I encountered—wouldn’t be stained. I knew airport checkpoints were disturbing, dehumanizing, and frightening places for many people. And these days, more than ever, it becomes almost impossible to pass through an airport without thinking about how many people are detained on their way. How many have their property confiscated. How many leave feeling violated. How many are forced to leave and forbidden to return. But, back then, I tried to reassure myself: Albany’s checkpoint was a bright, airy, high-ceilinged space. I hadn’t witnessed any inappropriate behavior. Technically, as TSOs, we weren’t even allowed to detain people—that was police work.My professorial intellectualizing didn’t help much the first time I had to shadow a TSO named Lance, a hard-working bodybuilder so thick with muscle he had to walk through the scanner sideways. He showed devotion to all the rules, held at least one other security job, and went to night school. When he wasn’t working or studying, he was watching cop shows, preparing himself for the latest threats. In other words, he was a true believer with big aspirations in the security field. Only a fool would have tried to get in his way. When he watched me perform a pat-down, I flubbed my lines and forgot to check the passenger’s feet. Lance was not impressed. “That being-nice stuff,” he said, “you have to let that go.”The next time I was paired with Lance, he focused harder on my pat-down technique. Again, he was not impressed. “Have you been practicing your verbiage at home?” he asked.“Not really.”“It’s a yes or no question,” he said.I felt like a student woefully unprepared for class. “No,” I admitted.He shook his freshly shaved head and went over to speak to the supervisor. When he returned, he led me off to the side of the checkpoint and told me to practice a pat-down on him. A few of the other officers and officers-in-training glanced our way. I noticed a few passengers watching too.“Do the whole script,” Lance said.“Can you see your belongings,” I began, “or would you like me to bring them over here?”“You need to enunciate better,” Lance said.“I’m going to use my hands to pat down the clothed areas of your body. I’ll use the backs of my hands on the sensitive areas, the buttocks and the zipper line. I’ll be clearing your collar and your waistline with two fingers. And I’ll be clearing each inner thigh, sliding up until I reach resistance.”“Say it like you mean it,” Lance said. “You need to do pat-downs like they mean what they’re supposed to mean. Every pat-down is done to make sure the person in front of you is not a risk, right?”I nodded and went on, nervous, wondering if my job was on the line. “Do you have any internal or external medical devices? Do you have any painful or tender areas on your body? Do you have absolutely everything out of your pockets?”“This is your house,” Lance said, echoing one of Steven’s opening lines.“A private screening is available if you’d prefer. You can request one at any time.”“Go ahead,” he told me.So I did what I said I was going to do and, as was the case with every pat-down, eventually I was on the dull brown airport carpet, on my knees. I cleared Lance’s big feet, his legs, and I went up until I met resistance.“That’s better,” Lance said. “Remember, if you’re not doing a pat-down properly, then you’re doing it improperly, and isn’t your whole Mr. Nice Guy thing about not doing anything improper?”When I stood up, the rest of the checkpoint was still humming along as usual. Was I being hazed? Humbled? Embarrassed? Schooled?All of the above, of course.Later in the shift, while we were working the bag search position, a young woman lost the backing to her earring. She seemed willing to let it go, but I knelt on the carpet again and managed to find it, a small speck of silver amid the brown strands studded with dust.The woman beamed at us as she reattached the earring. “My day is going to be much better now,” she said.That pleased me, and it pleased me even more when Lance, smiling, looked my way and said, “You got a hawkeye or something?”Just forever seeking the approval of my father, or father-figure of the moment, I could have said.Security. Homeland. Fatherland. Maybe my motivations for seeking a job with the TSA were simpler than I thought.That night, at home, while my family slept, I made sure to study my verbiage.4.If this were a tabloid exposé or a steamy roman a clef, you might expect to hear tales of corrupt, inept, mean-spirited TSOs screwing in family restrooms, smuggling drugs, stealing laptops, and tormenting the elderly, all while failing one critical Homeland Security test after another.I’ve read those stories. I’ve spent time on websites like Taking Sense Away, where a former TSO not only wrote about the failings of the system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but also periodically published e-mails from other TSOs around the country eager to share their own critiques of the system. I closely follow coverage of the TSA in the news and it seems clear that far too many officers abuse their power. Toddlers are patted down. Cancer survivors are forced to remove their prosthetic breasts. The list goes on.I have no desire to be an apologist. Also, I held the job during Obama’s presidency. The job and the way airport work is done seem likely to keep changing drastically as Trump continues to make appointments and sign executive orders. Who can say at this point what sorts of orders TSA employees might be compelled to carry out in the months and years to come?A mantra I heard throughout my training helped me understand my time on the job: If you’ve been to one airport, you’ve been to one airport. While I can’t speak to what happens at other airports or what might happen in the future, I can tell you what I experienced and observed during my time at Albany International. It’s not a particularly sexy or edgy reveal. I saw a diverse group of men and women of all ages who sought TSA employment because it offered a combination that seems scarce these days: entry-level positions with real health benefits, job security, and the possibility of career development. For all its supposed faults, the TSA is an opportunity for thousands of people who want to help keep their finances and/or nation secure. I watched Steven and Lance and Nina work hard every day. Some were more skeptical about the mission than others, some were more crass in their conduct than others, but everyone I saw performed the job they’d been trained to do as best they could.I’ve held other entry-level jobs over the course of my life: kennel cleaner, dishwasher, waiter, gardener, gravedigger, office temp, lab assistant. Working as a TSO-in-training was as challenging as any other work I’ve done, including writing and teaching. At the checkpoint, we were often urged to practice focused attention, hour after hour, shift after shift, and it could get exhausting. We rotated from station to station, repeating our scripts, studying documents and images, searching bags, and we were supposed to perform each task as if our lives and the lives of everyone around us were continuously at stake.In my best moments at the checkpoint, however, I came to feel that security done right could be downright peaceful, even uplifting, a way to rise above our world of constant distractions. In this context, it’s revealing that the TSA lingo for passengers is actually PAX. The PAX passed by, pulling their rolling bags, poking at their devices, chatting with other PAX and non-PAX in distant locations, and there was an odd, pulsating beauty to it all. Peace, PAX. We’re all PAX of the world, just a swirl of souls. We pass through airports to lift off and land, like so many drops of water, bound for our time in the clouds. We’re carried aloft for miles and then we descend back to the earth’s surface. The world spins and we spin upon it; it is, like almost everything else, beyond our control. The tickets can say whatever they say. Everyone knows the person who arrives is not the same person who departed. Whoever we are, we won’t be for long.5.The application process to join the TSA was complicated and lengthy, involving forms, tests, physicals, and months of waiting; the resignation process was surprisingly swift.After I’d been on the job for a few months, a group of people started leafleting the checkpoint, encouraging PAX to opt out of the pat-downs. The story drew local media coverage, and when I read the article in the Albany Times-Union, I noticed it had been written by a friend of mine. He could’ve easily seen me while reporting, and then I would have become part of the story. And if it wasn’t that friend, it would eventually be a student of mine, or a parent from my son’s school, or someone else. Gene’s day-one moment of recognition hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky next time. I didn’t want to become the story, at least not until I figured out for myself what the story was.So, the day after I read the Times-Union article, at the end of my shift I went downstairs to the HR office, right across from the windowless classroom where I’d been trained. I told the woman behind the desk that I wanted to talk about resigning. She asked if working afternoons instead of mornings would help. She said if I was interested, it might be possible to take some time away and get re-instated later. Her kindness caught me off guard. I considered changing my mind. Then I told her I’d made my decision. She handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper so I could write a short resignation letter.“Do I need to say anything in particular?” I asked.“Just that you’ve decided to resign. Also include the date, your name, and social security number.”While I wrote a sentence or two, she prepared a few forms for me to sign. She asked for my DHS ID and told me to drop my uniforms off within forty-eight hours.“That’s it?” I asked.“We’re used to turnover,” she said. Then she told one of her assistants to escort me out to my car. I wondered if I was making a mistake. The assistant didn’t talk to me as we walked and he stopped at the employee lot gate to wait for me. Alone in my car, I took a long look at my TSA ID and parking pass. Then, when I pulled out of the lot, I lowered my window and surrendered the pass and ID to the unsmiling assistant.From the airport, I headed south on the thruway toward the university and parked in the faculty/staff lot. I grabbed my backpack, which was stuffed with books and a change of clothes. On the way to the Humanities building, my uniform hidden beneath my winter coat, I walked among crowds of students, thinking, again, of my father. Instead of going to college, he’d covered his own father’s territory, hawking textiles his whole life. Over the years, I’d come to believe that his obsession with rules and his inability to relax stemmed from the ways that job compelled him to serve others. His salary was completely determined by the commissions he made on each sale. In other words, as he travelled the northeast corridor, lugging sample cases from office to office, his success depended upon pleasing and winning over one boss after another. I sometimes simplified it this way: Serving as a paratrooper in the Air Force Reserves compacted his body; working as a salesman shrank his soul.I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office. I needed to prepare for class. I needed another cup of coffee. It was a relief to be down to one job again.Before I changed out of my uniform for the last time, I wondered again what it would be like to work as a TSO year after year, to remain in the TSA while my wife and I continued to raise our son. Would my soul shrink or expand? Would I come home from work most days feeling powerful or powerless? Could my work at the checkpoint be just as significant to me as my work on the page, or in the classroom?When I think about those questions now, in these early months of Trump’s presidency, I’m even less certain of the answers. It’s so easy to slip into despair about the seeming ineffectiveness of—and opposition to—writing and the arts under the current administration.But Trump wasn’t on my radar back then. I carried my questions into my office with me. I closed the door and started to change out of my uniform. As I traded the titanium blue TSA shirt for an English professor’s simple white button-down, I thought about something that happened a few days before I resigned.I was working the document checking station, reaching for the next person’s ID and boarding pass, when I found myself face-to-face with another former university colleague. Judith and I had never been close, but we’d worked together and, when she retired, it so happened that I wound up moving into her office. We’d chatted a few times about whether or not she wanted the two pink wingchairs she’d left behind. We’d also bumped into each other once at the local food co-op. “Well, you better get on back to my office,” she’d joked. But at the checkpoint, she didn’t really see me. My face was still my face. My last name was printed on the silver nametag pinned to my chest, and there aren’t too many Schwarzschilds in Albany. I looked at her and wished her a nice trip when I returned her documents. She stepped away, oblivious, because from where she stood, I fit in. The checkpoint was my house and I was guarding the gates of Pax Americana. I was not an impostor.Sure, I was slightly hurt she didn’t recognize me. But, more than that, I felt strangely proud.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
Along Came Harvey

My father defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, and resigned himself to living on a futon in his parents’ living room. Then he bought a two-foot-tall stuffed rabbit.

I was twelve years old when my father, sitting next to me in his Cadillac outside my school, looked at his hands, calloused from hours at his electric guitar, and informed me that I was an adult, that I no longer needed him as a parent. He’d be leaving tomorrow, he told me, to drive down to Vegas to become a professional poker player. He was good at poker, had taught me everything I knew about the game, late nights skipping homework, betting pennies on the floor of his apartment from the age of eight, when he and my mother had divorced.My father never made it to Vegas. He drove five hours to his parents’ home on a stark suburban street in Ottawa, and stayed there, on a futon in their living room, for twenty years. It didn’t make sense to me at the time: he was a gambler, an adventurer, a man with an insatiable thirst for life. These were all the impressions I had as a child, and all, save that he was a gambler, were false. My father had never lived alone. He was afraid of travel, of flying, and was not, as a gambler, equipped to take care of himself, let alone a child, financially. So his mother and father took him in. Perhaps out of the same strange sense of obligation I felt towards keeping him happy. More likely, I think, they felt they owed him. My father’s own childhood, from what I’ve heard, had it’s own extreme hardship between the war, the depression, and a father who swung between domineering and outright abusive. Together, perhaps unconsciously aware of this dynamic, they lived in an insular, isolated world, making their weekly trips to the casino, and to the Denny’s up the street for weekend brunches. This was their life, and as far as I could tell, they were content with it.He would call once a year or so, around the holidays—or, rather, would have his mother call me and then pass him the phone, so adamant was he in his resolve to never again hear the sound of my mother’s voice. He and my mother had fought on a regular basis, sleeping in separate bedrooms and keeping opposing work schedules until they finally decided to get a divorce. The divorce resulted, as many do, in a vicious court battle, and in rages within my father that would manifest as statements, during otherwise calm mornings, about how he would like to shoot my mother between the eyes or drive her off a cliff.I began to wonder, after he left, if part of what prompted his departure was my increasing resemblance to my mother. He’d gone almost instantly from the central figure in my life to a near-stranger. I flirted with suicide, withdrew socially, and took up hours of lying on the floor listening to ’90s grunge. He, meanwhile, had defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, resigned himself to a futon in his parents’ living room surrounded by craft supplies and Dollarama knick-knacks. It was during that first year in Ottawa that my father bought Harvey.*Harvey is a stuffed white rabbit, about two feet tall and cuddly, purchased from the gift section of a local bookstore. Harvey wears a black tie on special occasions, and is rarely left alone. My father would sit Harvey on the futon next to him during movie nights with his parents and carry him around in the local shopping mall during weekly outings with his father. He loathed his father, the war vet with a bitter disposition who, following the three strokes and tracheotomy, could express himself only in hisses, grunts, and seemingly random pointing.He and my grandmother put up with Harvey, though, both handling the stuffed rabbit with the tired resignation of those who knew well the stubbornness of their son, and no longer had the energy to fight it. During weekend brunches, my father would sit Harvey in the chair next to him, order him a coffee, and smile at the waitress with unwavering confidence in the charm of his quirk. On the rare occasions that I was invited into their world I would glimpse this ritual, sitting across from my father and Harvey with a blank expression, a daughter too fixated on keeping her father’s love to display anything other than total compliance. There was such pride in the way my father presented his eccentricity to the small world around him. He had inserted himself into his parents’ life with success. He could do as he pleased. Now, with Harvey beside him, he’d upped the ante, proving to himself that he could take these little impositions to another level. Everything about him—the way he smiled in his cowboy boots and black cowboy hat; the thinning ponytail that crawled down along the back of his neck like a snake; the quickly aging and ratty rabbit—served to confirm his status as a man who could do whatever he wanted, regardless of how those around him might feel about it.*My father’s obsession with Harvey began with the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, in which Stewart portrayed Elwood P. Dowd, a lovable anti-intellectual with his own Harvey—also a rabbit, though his was six-foot-two, invisible, and a bit of a smart-ass. From the time I was six or so, my father and I would watch the film annually, and he would transform into a child, eyes wide and mind open, receptive. He saw Stewart as a guru, mouthing the words as he said them: “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.” This quote, I would realize years after his departure, was the key to my father’s approach to life.Having grown up with a rigid, controlling father through the Depression, and having known nothing but poverty and perhaps frequent acts of aggression, I imagine my father’s interest in reality was beaten out of him at a fairly early age. My grandfather fought overseas in the Second World War. While he was gone he forbade my grandmother from working to keep the family well fed, and when he returned, he brought a warring aggression that unloaded itself almost exclusively on my father. I wonder if, for my father, part of the appeal of moving in with his parents was the reversal he might have felt, suddenly a strong and imposing force in his now sickly, silenced father’s life.In the film, Dowd’s sister is desperate to be married, and his mother desperate to marry her off. His insistence upon parading his imaginary companion scares off friends and suitors alike, leaving the women in his life at a loss. Eventually they come to a sort of resigned realization that this invisible rabbit is important to Dowd in a way that overshadows them altogether.*My father was conflicted, he once confided in me, about Jimmy Stewart as a person. How, he wondered, could he play a hero such as Elwood P. Dowd in one film, then turn around and play a detestably selfless communist in another? The selfless communist he referred to, with notable disdain, was George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. During the four years in which I lived alone with him for three days a week, between my parents’ divorce and his ultimate exit, he refused to let me watch that film, claiming it was communist propaganda that aimed to undo everything great thinkers such as Ayn Rand had worked so hard to achieve. My father didn’t read much, but when he did, without fail, he read Ayn Rand. He carried her books like bibles, quoting from them, much as he did Harvey, with an earnestness, a devotion, that seemed to me unwavering. My father was rarely an angry man, generally blissful in his willful neglect of the needs and demands of others, but when he talked about It’s a Wonderful Life, he became something almost frightening, shut off, righteous. It was a trait I’d known he carried with him always, hidden beneath the easy smile, and knowing about the trait is what kept me good. Knowing it was there meant knowing the maintenance of his cheery disposition depended upon me, on my ability to maintain my “good girl” status, to stay obedient, easygoing, to accept and embrace whatever it was he wanted to give, including Harvey.For those four years, we did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. I learned not to want much, not to ask for meals or to go out for a few hours to visit with a friend. I existed to keep him entertained; together, we went to his favourite horror movies, or to the pool halls and racetracks at the outskirts of Mississauga. He didn’t think about things like washing my clothes or cooking me meals, and I was so eager to be loved that I learned quickly not to push for such things. While he stepped into the full glory of his most selfish, most imposing self, I shrank proportionately. I stopped knowing how to even begin to think about what I might want or need.I was thirty when I finally saw It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d barely spoken to my father in a decade, save for the odd birthday text or holiday greeting card. That was how long it had taken for me to feel free enough in my autonomy to do something I knew would displease him. By the end of the film I was crying the way I wouldn’t allow myself to even when my father announced he was leaving: loudly, sloppily, and with uninhibited dejection. It was a beautiful film. It exhibited a Jimmy Stewart who cared about the people, the state of the world around him. Here was a version of manhood my father had so ardently hidden from me, protecting me from the knowledge that one could be generous, and giving, and that it could benefit those around him in profound ways. I, of course, knew how to be giving, having been trained well as a child. What I didn’t know was how to receive, the way those around George Bailey did, the benefits of such generosity. I was crying because it was heartwarming, but more than that, because while I’d cried plenty for the loss of my father, I’d never cried or even properly acknowledged the loss of wellbeing I’d suffered while in his presence.*The last time I saw my father was February of last year. He called out of the blue from a number I didn’t recognize to tell me he was dying. I agreed to see him one last time before he started a rigorous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy for stage-four lung cancer. They’d taken a chunk of his brain, where the cancer had spread, and the scar was still fresh, a Frankenstein’s monster gash across the right side of his head. He had, in addition to a flesh and bone wife who fixed us tea while we made small talk, a family of Harveys now. The rabbits sat in a pile on the couch, some smaller than others, some brown or beige, dressed with scarves or hats, some naked. He washed them monthly, he said, in the machine. His wife adopted the Harveys as though they were her own, and fretted about their comfort: was the temperature right? Were they dressed warmly enough? Did they have enough space? Did they feel loved?I hadn’t seen my father since his own father’s funeral. Harvey wore a black silk tie for that occasion, and when the family went to Red Lobster afterward, he sat between my father and me. My father leaned over Harvey and opened his wallet in front of my face. There was a photograph, a little school photo of me when I was ten years old. You could see the meekness, the awkward way I held myself after the divorce. The year this photo was taken, my parents were engaged in a vicious court battle, I had just been diagnosed with a supposedly insurmountable learning disability, had been held back in school, and was generally on the verge of suicide. To my father, though, as I’d been well trained to please him, I was a smiling, obedient girl who enjoyed the horror movies and casinos and pool halls he brought me to. In showing me this old photograph he believed he was showing how much he loved me. I looked at the photo, saw in it the desperation of our two realities, and told him I had a more recent photograph he could have. I’d just finished graduate school in New York and had a smiling headshot, black cap, red lipstick and all. My father shook his head, folded up his wallet again, returned it to the back pocket of his black.“No thank you,” he said. He told me the photograph represented the time when he loved me most. Sure, he still loved me now, he’d offered, in a way, but it was different. My father moved a glass of water a little closer to Harvey’s face, I suppose to make it easier for him to drink should he suddenly become animate and thirsty. I sat silent, waiting for the ordeal to be over, for freedom, again, from my father’s reality.
Mourning My Dad, the Identical Twin

The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until he passed away.

In 2011, my father died. Technically.Let me start again. My dad, Tony, was an identical twin. He and his brother Tom were tall, blonde, thin-legged and blue-eyed with a surprisingly Italian last name. They typed terse emails with their index fingers and loved The Godfather movies. They shared bad senses of humour, ice cream dependency, discomfort with long phone conversations (save for with each other), and business acumen.Tom is still alive. My dad isn’t. The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until my dad passed away.As is custom, the funeral was bleak. In the memorial line up of family members, seeing my uncle exacerbated the strange reality of loss. A few guests were unfortunately or hilariously caught unaware that Tony had a twin brother. Reactions to Tom ranged from shock to clinginess. People insisted on reminding my uncle of his uncanny resemblance to my dad. Tom responded, patiently, way too many times: I know.In the ’80s, the only feature that distinguished my dad from Tom was a thick, blonde cowboy moustache. One day, well into a confidently moustachioed decade, after much urging from Tom, my dad shaved. The twins then tried to confuse my cousin and I about who was whose father—It’s me, your daddy, one of them insisted—and neither my cousin nor I could distinguish. They were that identical. This experiment ended in tears. My cousin and me: paralysed and afraid. Betrayed? I was about five years old at the time.I’m not sure what the fear was. Was I worried about making the wrong choice and losing my dad’s faith, failing a test of some kind? Or was it that I couldn’t be clear about what made my dad my dad?*Tom and Tony’s likeness went deeper than their appearances. A particular freaky twin thing happened during a summer in the ’90s when my parents brought my brother and I to a little hotel on Prince Edward Island. We went for a walk into the charming town to marvel at, I don’t know, the gables and the red clay beaches, probably, when my dad stopped on the sidewalk and said something like I think Tom’s here. Minutes later, we heard a car horn and turned to see my uncle cackling out the window. The twins had, without knowing, booked the same vacation, at the same hotel, for the same damn week.Coincidences like this are called tacit coordination—the phenomenon that people can successfully coordinate their decisions without communication. Though it can happen in many social contexts, identical twins in particular enact synchronous behaviours or decisions frequently, and have a high incidence of tacit coordination. The social bond between identical twins has been described as among the closest and most enduring of human social relationships.The genetic commonality of identical twins may underlie their similarities and social intimacy, and the perception of physical likeness can cause others to subconsciously reinforce similar behaviours.While my dad and uncle were growing up, people could never be sure who was who, so each twin was often called TomTony. One word. The twins would answer to each other’s names; they were so wrapped up in each other and indistinguishable that to be recognized as an individual might’ve been expecting too much. And really, how could you maintain any behavioural or psychic distance if you share everything, including your name?Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in a family of nine children, the twins were like their own unit. As my Uncle Tom puts it, they kept each other company and, as far as I can glean from second-hand stories and my own experiences with their hard-ass Canadian Auto Workers union activist parents, protected each other amongst the chaos.I called my uncle recently and asked about some of his twin memories. He said one of the hardest times for them was when my dad failed grade 7, which meant that Tom and Tony would no longer be in the same class. The twins cried over their report cards outside the school; the repercussions were overwhelming—separate grades, separate classrooms, Tom would start high school a year sooner. They were devastated at the idea of being apart. On their walk home from school the twins formulated a plan: Tom promised to intentionally fail grade 8, leaving Tony enough time to catch up so that they could be together again. Of course, when their hardline parents caught wind of this, the twins were scared off from following through with the scheme.I wonder, if they’d followed through, if their relationship would’ve been different. Maybe my dad’s 13-year-old follies gave the twins enough distance in their education to grow some independence, to maintain their bond, but who knows, maybe into their adult years they still would’ve preferred to have been synched up. Still, they went on to work the same jobs at A&P grocery, eventually becoming twin co-managers, and put themselves through business school at the University of Windsor, one year apart.My uncle got married in August of 1977. Following a job offer, he and his wife moved to the Toronto area after the wedding. It was the first time Tom was away from home, and the first time in their lives that the twins wouldn’t share a room. The twins were distraught and crying as the reception wrapped up. My uncle’s wife stepped in to get Tom on the road to their honeymoon, prying the twins apart.My uncle’s family were the only LaSordas who moved out of Windsor. Most of my life Tom’s family has lived across the border in Michigan. When our families would visit, the twins were giddy. TomTony essentially reverted to being little boys. They matched each other. One exception was the development of my uncle’s slight American accent, notable on words like dah-lers, which my dad hated. If one twin lost weight, the other would try to lose weight too. Haircuts. Glasses. Clothing. They’d explained their constant evaluation of each other as disciplining themselves so they could still look alike. They wanted to.Tom and Tony have their differences, however subtle. My dad, minutes younger, was more outgoing. He’d starred in a middle school production of Our Town, and brought up his glorious moment of stardom on the regular. He dated a few women before he met my mother. Tom, on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart. In their careers, too, Tony was preoccupied in creating, and Tom was interested in contributing; my dad started his own marketing company while Tom worked at high level corporate for auto companies. Both twins were blind in one eye—Tom’s left, Tony’s right—one of the only physical attributes in which they were the inverse of each other.As a non-twin, I think all of the blurred identity stuff sounds annoying. When your self is so tied up in another person’s, I assumed there’d be a longing for that sort of individual distinction, maybe some resentment at having a persistent and dizzyingly close model for comparison. Instead, my Uncle Tom explained that being mistaken for someone else or someone not being sure what name to call him made him feel special. With every milestone or piece of good news, Tom says he and my dad were never jealous or competitive in any negative sense. If anything, the twins felt as though they were achieving vicariously, maybe even taking credit for it by genetic association.As Tom remembers, in Windsor, Ontario in the 1950s, identical twins were rare. Everyone around them seemed to reinforce their twinness; together, they were magnetic. “People stared, stopped us on the street, asked us questions,” he said. “We were rock stars.”*My dad died suddenly, after what should have been a routine heart surgery. He was too young—everyone I knew made sure to say so, as if confirming that this loss was indeed tragic. His death shattered me. I went through unnerving phases like eating only comfort food. I threw away a manuscript I’d “finished,” adopted a kitten, never talked about his death, and then sometimes talked about it.It’s only recently that I’ve considered how deeply and distinctively his death must have shattered his twin. I think of my uncle witnessing my dad being extremely ill, struggling, and dying; it would be horrific in ways unique from my own experience. Losing a life partner and a best friend is its own grotesque and crushing blow. But with their resemblance, my uncle could’ve been glimpsing himself in such a state, not unlike a Dickensian spectre of what-is-yet-to-come.[[{"fid":"6700756","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"2448","width":"3264","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Kinship genetic theory suggests that our ratings of grief intensity will increase proportionally with genetic relatedness to the deceased. Several twin-specific bereavement studies have found direct association between the degree of gene similarity (which is highest in identical twins) and anticipated grief. Using a rating system called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) selected aspects of twinship—preoccupation with the co-twin; disruption of shared birthdays; reactions to meeting or seeing other twins—were significantly associated with high GEI scale scores.In terms of experiencing grief for a co-twin in comparison to another sibling, my uncle can speak to both. Two younger LaSorda brothers passed away in the twins’ lifetimes: one at age of 16, and one at age 39, both unexpectedly. Of course these were tragedies that my uncle grieved, but when his twin died, he said the loss felt completely different.Twin researchers Nancy Segal and Thomas Bouchard have found that the mean grief intensity rating for twins was higher than for non-twin siblings, and significantly higher than that for spouses. My uncle echoed this finding: “A twin is more like a wife or a husband,” he said, “but bigger than that, because with a spouse, you could maybe meet another one. You can remember a time before. A twin leaves a void that’s always, always there.”*Tom and Tony have left their children a legacy of similarities, in a way. My cousin, Jackie, and I are the first-born kids of the twins. We share some physical traits (kind of tall, kind of blonde, fast walkers), but the parallels in our behaviours are what I find most striking. We both move around a lot (too much). For several Christmas holidays in a row we’ve chosen the same gifts for our mothers. We’ve both gone to university and later pursued two Master’s degrees: one academic and one Fine Arts each. We are intensely self-deprecating, solitary, and we were given the same prescription antidepressant.Oh, did I mention we’re both writers?As the children of identical twins, Jackie and I share 25 percent of our genes instead of the usual cousins’ share of 12.5%. Biologically, we’re half-sisters, not cousins. An identical twin parent is as closely related to his own children as to the co-twin’s children. At first I was surprised by my cousin’s grief when my dad died, but then again, I’d feel the same way. Our dads are our favourite people for the same reasons.*What I struggle with is the question of whether grieving my dad is made easier or harder by his twinship. You hear it all the time when someone loses a loved one: what I’d give to see them one more time, to be able to call them, hear their voice, hug them. I have that option, sort of. This father-clone.Since his death, I attempt to formulate my dad’s opinions about events that unfold, about the arc of my life since his absence, even thoughts about former tensions in our relationship. I hold on to my metaphorical grief suitcase. I can get insights from my uncle, though I rarely consult him; in part because I worry it’s painful for us both. When I called Tom the other day and asked for advice, I can say with confidence that what he told me is exactly what my dad would’ve said, down to the idioms and the nervous, excited laughter when answering the phone. So, in a way, the twin thing is a privilege.In another way, I can get petty. I see my cousins enjoying their lives with their dad. I watch Jackie grow annoyed sometimes, probably the same way I was, by her dad’s conservatism (maybe born out of the vehement working-class socialism they were raised with), his struggle to talk feelings, or his crippling awkwardness at drive-thru windows. I also see how my dad would’ve aged, how a few more years would’ve softened him.On the phone with Tom, talking about my dad, I was nervous. My uncle relaxed, and recounted story after story of his favourite twin memories. I jotted down Tom’s words in my notebook for over an hour—a shockingly long phone call for one of the twins. Tom and Tony were excellent baseball players. One season, they were placed on separate teams and pitched. Both made it to the finals—Tom’s team won. The Windsor Star featured a small clipping with a photo of the indistinguishable twins facing off with their uniforms and gloves, but the caption stated that Tony’s team won. Tom jokes about demanding a retraction from the paper, but the reality is neither the championship nor the headline mattered: their wins and losses were vicarious. As I listened, I began to step back and recognize that Tom is whole—a person who can offer me a distinct relationship and a perspective on my dad that I could never otherwise access. I stopped fretting about the upsetting parts of their identicality, because those exist in the similarities and the differences. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of sparkling individuality while hunting for what I needed from my uncle, which is my dad.
‘Sadness Sharpens Into Anger Very Quickly’: An Interview with Pasha Malla

The author of Fugue States on upending Diaspora clichés, disingenuous narrative arcs, and dharma.

I first saw Pasha Malla speak in 2008, at a packed event at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, for the launch of his debut collection of stories, The Withdrawal Method. Instead of a customary reading he presented a slideshow which included a series of doodles he made as a kid in London, Ontario while fascinated by the Nazis: swastikas, guns, fighter jets and tanks. Each drawing was accompanied by self-lacerating commentary on his childhood psychology, and if I remember correctly, he didn’t read a single story from his book that night.This lite deviancy left me enthralled at 21—who was this funny brown dude treating his own book launch with irreverence? I scooped up the stories and was engrossed with the tender rage he presented in the collection: brothers full of love unable to talk to each other, absurd imagery that stretched and collapsed. The book was funny. Like, funny-funny, but then the stories would detonate in unexpected ways and leave me reeling; it seemed impossible that someone could make stories twist and feel with such precision.Since The Withdrawal Method Malla has published a collection of poetry, found poetry focusing on post-game interviews with athletes, an art book riffing on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, and an experimental novel, People Park. He has taught at the University of Toronto and mentored a wide range of authors, alongside writing a regular books column for The Globe and Mail, and contributing regularly to The Walrus, Newyorker.com and others.Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Malla on a project of my own. I was a little scared to meet someone I knew only through their work and my own admiration, but my fear was needless. Malla greeted my writing and me with a relentless generosity, rigor, and seriousness. While I spent the summer floundering with the state of my own work, ambition, and relationships, Malla—unbeknownst to him—provided a kind of anchor and model of what it meant to live a life in the arts, one built on dedication to serious thinking and a devotion to craft free of pretension.His new novel Fugue States follows Ash Dhar, a thirty something radio interviewer and author, spiraling outwards from the recent death of his father. The book is ambitious in its scope—at once a comic farce, serious in its psychological searching, while also delicately taking apart the conventions of the realist novel. It manages to be a page turner and provocative simultaneously, asking from the reader as much as it gives.We talked over Skype; Pasha in his book adorned office in Hamilton, Ontario, me in my balmy room in Toronto. He laughs often when talking about basketball or something personal but shifts gears quick when speaking on writing. We were interrupted only once, near the end, when his big bushy dog burst into view. We spoke mostly about Fugue States, how it came to be, and the responsibilities he felt towards it and by the end of the interview he was back to recommending me books for my own work.Adnan Khan: What was the process to get into Fugue States? One of the things that’s curious to me is that this is very much a realist novel, but at the same time there are some elements of it that feel like you’re poking at the genre a little bit. Pasha Malla: Oh yeah, totally. The intention is that it dismantles the whole structure as it goes.I think I set out to write a realist novel and then what I wanted to write about and talk about kind of required me to disobey the conventions. It’s so weird, I started writing this thing six or seven years ago, and you have to try to remember where it started. And I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been saying things…I dunno if any one of them is true or it’s a combination or I don’t know.I was just interested in trying to write a realist novel that was about a chronological story that takes place in space and time, where, you know, people do things that people do.To me it seems like the easy sell for this novel is that it’s a comic, Diaspora psychological realism novel, and then as you read it, you see it sort of turn inside out. I’m curious to know why you did that, basically. Lots of reasons. I mean there are reasons of my own accountability to the material. Like, I don’t feel like I’m the guy to write a novel of Kashmir, you know? Those aren’t my stories to tell, there are already plenty of writers who are writing about that place, better than I can, people who live there, people who speak the language, people who are on the ground getting shot in the face with pellets and shit like that. So, yeah, I did not, I really wanted to, not take that one. Not appropriate it, I guess.At the same time, I thought that there was something interesting in that tension of having this tenuous cultural heritage, from this place, being a piece of who I am, and so actively resisting it for ten years of having a writing career, because of that concern. Because of that concern and because of how that shit gets commodified and how in some ways writing about it is adhering to a market expectation and how easily that becomes packaged.It’s interesting that you say that—to explore that tension—because re-reading The Withdrawal Method, there are a few stories where there are certainly brown characters, but it’s not central to the story. Someone asked you in an interview why in The Slough, the first story of The Withdrawal Method, you named a character Pasha, and you talked about responsibility and not wanting the character to get away with something. The Slough is almost a foreshadowing of this novel, in the way that story also inverts upon itself. The point of that inversion was more exclusively literary and the points of the inversion in this book are, for lack of a better word, political. Or at least, I’m trying to—by sort of dismantling the structure and by setting up one kind of story only to subvert it I hope that I am—asking some questions about how we create narratives: political narratives vs. narratives of masculinity vs. narratives of purpose.One of the things that came up was this idea of responsibility. It seemed to me very much about responsibility, about whom is responsible for whom and not just who cares for who—but who is responsible, that sense of duty. Yeah, duty is—I mean, dharma.And it comes up in The Withdrawal Method, there are at least two stories about care giving and that sense of duty. I’m also curious to know, because the Kashmiri question comes up, there’s a point where Ash directly addresses this—when he discovers his father’s manuscript, he asks something like “why would I write this book, is it my story to tell?”He says explicitly that the character had written this kind of silly book and then felt the weight of doing something political, and wanted to write about Kashmir and then just couldn’t find a way in and felt disingenuous or manipulative or in some way advantageous to his own career to write about a very serious trauma.Is that cynical? Maybe I’m being cynical, maybe I’m being naïve, but even your willingness to engage with that question…I don’t think that if you publish this book and you take away all those questions about who can write about Kashmir, I don’t think anyone would say to you: you can’t write this. I think they would say, “You’re half Kashmiri, your father is Kashmiri, go nuts.” I think it’s just a personal resistance—I don’t really care what other people say. It’s just a personal thing, especially having gone there with my dad and feeling so outside of that culture. I went while I was writing the book. Basically I’d written drafts of the first two sections and I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll go there with him and then I’ll be able to write the third part where they actually go” and it did not go how I was expecting. I did not come away from that trip with any sort of better understanding of the things that I wanted to write about but a whole different set of questions that I thought were worth pursuing.What did you go there wanting to pursue? I thought I would just go there and get some answers. Just see the place and breathe the air and some way innately understand it. I hadn’t been there since I was four and I have no memories, or very, very small little flashes of sensory memory of ever being there.I thought, yeah, I had expectations of that trip, that it would sort of be like a birthright trip or a homecoming or something and I would suddenly be within my people. It was, like, not like that, at all.It’s a decimated place. It’s really not what it once was. Infrastructure is crumbling, people are suffering, the large proportion of the population no longer lives there, and 40,000—probably more than that—people have been murdered. It has kind of a shell shocked feeling of a place. It’s still beautiful if you look up, but if you look down, it’s degradation. And it’s not what it once was—at least, what I’d been told what it was.The story then became about the idealization of what it is to people, to exiles, and how the place can never be what people want it to be, or how it’s remembered. They remember in this idealized sort of way.I think that the character in the book, Ash, has inherited this idealized version of what that place will be and has this innate suspicion that it is not that so I think he knows that if he starts to write about it, he will be writing about a false version, and then, he resists going because he doesn’t want to know the truth, and then he gets there and forgets why he’s there!Why is care giving, or duty, so prevalent in your work? Ash does go to India for Matt—there’s an underlying sense of taking care.When I was writing The Withdrawal Method my step-mom was really sick and my dad just dedicated his life to taking care of her. I mean, he talked about dharma all the time—it’s like, I’m not doing anything good, I’m just doing what has to be done. Not out of obligation—but this is what you do. And, you know, I like that idea.I like to think about the various degrees of loyalty and what that means in friendships and how Matt’s idea of loyalty is built into this code of what he imagines it means to be a man and a friend and whatever else, that the book kind of dismantles. And I think that, you know, ways that men in this novel, like Chip is the sole caretaker for his son, who has cerebral palsy, and it’s just a relationship that Ash cannot fathom.I wanted that relationship to have an irony to it, where we see how hard this guy is trying to take care of his kid, as a man, he’s doing his best, and there’s something kind of innate to how he’s been culturally limited to do it right—or at least, how he feels he should be doing it right. Struggling with it and whatever else. You know, you don’t read a lot of books—I don’t anyway—that apply that care-giving role to men, or caretaking. How men take care of each other and family and friends and everything else. And also how they fail.There is this undercurrent of menace through the book; Ash’s father is very angry, Ash is morose, but then there’s this comedy throughout. Even Matt—who is this incredibly destructive force for most of the book—is quite funny. I wanted to make their characters multivalent, so they’re not all just struggling with a kind of masculinity. Whether it’s bro culture masculinity that Matt feels like he has to live up to, or some sort of paternalistic culture the father needs to live up to, or whether the son feels like he has this male inheritance.But the way that North American male culture is built, that sadness sharpens into anger very quickly and the way that it manifests outwardly as hostility, violence, anger, aggression, and for the three of those characters. You know, Matt is physically violent, Ash is linguistically violent.And I think for that to work and the kind of tone I wanted—I didn’t want it to just be a book of menace, because that would create a kind of monotone that didn’t work for this. I think it works for something like Blood Meridian, where that tone is crucial to how that book operates, but I wanted for that to be not the dominant strain, but an undercurrent that is inevitable, especially when it rises up and becomes so prevalent.It’s very unsettling. The Matt-in-India stuff is terrifying. And he doesn’t know! I kind of wanted a certain, it’s hard to create expectations for what you want from the reader, but I liked the potential for the character—the people who find him innocuously entertaining and have some sympathy for him, I think that’s good. But I also wanted to turn that into a kind of complicity, where his bumbling is such a symptom of a certain type of privilege. And that this kind of behavior actually wreaks a lot of havoc.I think that my intention was to try and create a character that feels potentially dangerous but is innocuous enough—at least in the first two, maybe the first part of the book and then starts to shift in the second and then really shifts in the third—that if you’re entertained by this guy, then suddenly you’re like “oh shit, I kinda got sucked up in this character.” To some people I think he might be charming, or sympathetic; and certainly some people would find him repulsive. That’s fine too.I was also interested in the relationship between Ash and Sherene. It’s sort of set up initially that Ash is very needy towards her, and kind of longing for her, but then it comes out that it’s a friendship. You see that Sherene, a woman, is the only place where he can express that longing for intimacy. Whereas Matt, who is desperate for it from Ash, never gets it from Ash. Yeah. And they have an intellectual intimacy. There’s nothing really romantic there. There’s a kind of longing of certain kinds of friendships that will never be consummated in any way, except trust, and a sort of emotional dependency.You said complicit, and that struck a chord because that’s something the book does. Not only playing with the very typical Diaspora storyline—I’m pretty sure the father dying and the boy going back home is what happens in The Namesake—I mean, I’m not gonna name names, but it’s cliché, and the book is full of cliché, but I hope that, it kind of upends them. The main character is aware that he is a cliché.And that self-awareness comes through. I remember when you outed Chip and Sherene as being Asian—do you want to talk about that a little bit? I love things that make me feel that sort of shame; because in the book you introduce them and then later on we learn that Chip is Korean and Sherene is Persian, and in both those moments I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I was definitely thinking that these dudes were white.” It’s just a little game. It’s a game to play with expectations and racialized characters have to be identified as racialized. I had a clear idea of who these people were from the beginning and then I was like, why do I need to explain it? If they were white I wouldn’t explain it. I hope that you know, the reader’s response to that is to make them question that expectation, that unless specified, a character is read as white.Talking about those ideas of what is common in Diaspora literature is this heirloom—Ash finds his father’s manuscript; this is what his father has left behind. Exactly, it’s another cliché.It also provokes a lot of questions about memory, about what’s left behind, and that ties in really well with a lot of the political stuff. You ask, how much responsibility does Ash have to Kashmir—what was the decision behind that, that you wanted to explode that? Explode what in particular?This idea of heirlooms, because it’s an unfinished heirloom. That caught my mind particularly—when someone comes from another country, you have to decide what to leave behind, and Ash’s father is this man of intellect and he decides to write the Great Indian Novel. And then Ash, viewing himself kind of as a failure, kind of not, sort of steps into his father’s shoes by retyping this novel and seeing what he can discover. And using that novel to engage with his dead father. It doesn’t go anywhere though, right? It’s a process that I think we see in fiction as being kind of rewarding, as a path to the self, I just feel like it’s a little bit disingenuous. Does life really work that way? I don’t know, it’s a question. I don’t know. But at least, in this book, the manuscript never goes anywhere, and then that sort of gets transmuted into the reality of the book, eventually. But Ash’s process of working on it doesn’t go anywhere either.The riskiest thing to me about this book is that you withheld the epiphany. Yeah, well, kind of.You withhold the epiphany with a capital e. I struggle with that tendency, among, let’s say, North American writers, to sort of take that cultural heritage and cultural inherited trauma and use it for self- discovery. It’s so weird. “I don’t know who I am, I’m going to dig up all this stuff about X genocide that happened to my ancestors to get a better sense of myself.”The level of solipsism in that is insane! So it’s something the character is aware of, and it’s something that I was thinking of when writing this book. I could spend a year in Kashmir talking to people and living there, but I think that the instinct to then use that to better understand myself is crazy. Like, I grew up in London, Ontario, you know what I mean? So it’s like—the resistance, the way the book sort of sets that up, is a kind of garden path, like he’s going to use this to sort of discover something about his dad and then discover something about himself, but is very conscientiously a dead end, I guess.I don’t know if there are epiphanies that are withheld. The coda that’s at the end of the book is supposed to lead the reader to a realization that the character’s had, you know, this theme of time and memory that’s sort of been threaded throughout the whole book, that there’s something still within that, there’s something that’s still worthwhile. And that the act of storytelling and, you know, fiction, and the process of engaging with these questions is, in itself, even though they don’t go anywhere, is worthwhile.I don’t think it’s an entirely cynical and nihilistic book. I feel like though it’s resisting a lot of these things, it’s resisting a lot of tropes and things that I think are themselves cynical. I think that, you know, approaching storytelling as a kind of teleology that will lead you to an end point of understanding is this thing that we’ve developed as a way to talk about fiction, to me, it’s like, is that what life is like?
It’s the New (Old) Thing: When Post-Punk and Literature Meet

From Pissed Jeans inviting Lindsay Hunter onto a song to Lynne Tillman writing for Y Pants to Kathy Acker performing with the Mekons, there’s a unique energy and catharsis in these collaborations.

So let’s begin with Pissed Jeans. From the eastern side of Pennsylvania, they tap into a grimy, visceral strain of music, have one of the most evocative names of any currently running punk band, and put on a gripping live show. Their latest album, Why Love Now, was released by Sub Pop at the end of February, and right smack in the middle of it, prime sonic real estate to disorient discerning listeners, is a song called “I’m a Man.” Like many of their songs, it delves into the grotesque and the menacing: over booming drums and frenetic guitars, a voice declaims a narrative of toxic masculinity that would make the misanthropic protagonist of your average Shellac song blush.“I’m a man, Miss Office Lady,” the narrator says, and proceeds with an unsettling and over-the-top method of seduction, using a tone of voice that’s both highly exaggerated and frequently sinister (“I’ll take the milk and the cow. That’s you. You’re the cow”). But the voice heard here isn’t that of Pissed Jeans vocalist Matt Korvette. Instead, those words were written and read by author Lindsay Hunter, whose books—including the novel Ugly Girls and the collections Daddy’s and Don’t Kiss Me—involve a host of similarly oversexed, comic-yet-sinister figures. Hunter blends in so neatly with the band’s sound and attitude, it’s almost a surprise such collaborations don’t happen more frequently.[[{"fid":"6700721","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Pissed Jeans - I'm A Man","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Which isn’t to say they never happen at all. Earlier this year, Water Wing Records out of Portland, Oregon, reissued Beat It Down, the first full-length from No Wave band Y Pants. Originally released in 1982, the album offers plenty of archetypally post-punk moves: left-field instrumental arrangements, haunting vocals, and a general sense of aesthetic unpredictability. The phrase “don’t be afraid to be boring” is repeatedly intoned on “Obvious,” the album’s first song, with connotations that sound alternately liberating and ominous. In other words, it’s par for the course for that particular musical moment in time.Where does the literary side of things come in? The song’s lyrics were written by Lynne Tillman, who went on to become an iconic writer among iconic writers, nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards in both fiction and criticism. On its own, “Obvious” seems of a piece with the rest of the album, whose songs deal with alienation, flawed interpersonal connections, and subcultures, but its lyrics also fit nicely in with Tillman’s bibliography, the components of which frequently disconcert, experiment with form, and often bring artistic disciplines together. It’s not the only literary nod on Beat It Down, either: the lyrics to “The Fly,” the eighth song on the album, are adapted from Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -.”In his 2008 book on the genre, Marc Masters pointed out that artists identified as No Wave had little in common—except for, in the case of many, a brief existence. “Did the bands sound the same? Did they think the same? Did they all get along? No. There is perhaps only one question to which No Wave offered a Yes: is there anything left when you start by saying 'No'?” All of which, then, makes for a subgenre that’s fairly open to collaborations, perhaps moreso than most. Why not bring in a writer to work on lyrics? Why not collaborate with someone outstanding in their own field but without formal musical training?The moment in No Wave history from which Y Pants emerged is important to keep in mind. In his introduction to the 2006 anthology Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Literary Scene, 1974-1992, editor Brandon Stosuy set the stage for the literary world that the book encompasses. Stosuy notes that the experimentalism of that scene had a greater aesthetic similarity to the punk bands with whom those writers frequently shared art spaces than more traditional concepts of experimental writing from the same time. “All in all,” he writes, “these writers have more in common with Reed and his Velvet Underground, the tight three-chord anthems of the Ramones, or the jagged sounds of Suicide and DNA than baroque Pynchon and his V-2 missiles.”As tends to happen when likeminded creative figures congregate, disciplines began to overlap. Stosuy’s anthology is particularly useful in the way it showcases a cross-section of a particular scene, noting not just the punk ties of literary figures like Tillman and Dennis Cooper, but also the literary efforts of those known for their work in other fields, such as Lydia Lunch and David Wojnarowicz. Barbara Ess, best known for her innovative photography, is represented in the anthology as both a writer and designer, but has also been involved in several musical groups over the years, the aforementioned Y Pants included.The same spirit of collaboration and the motif of punk and literature borrowing from one another—what Stosuy refers to as “the fusion of power chords and words”—persisted beyond the initial heyday of postpunk and downtown experimentalism. One of the most prominent writers mentioned in Up Is Up But So Is Down is Kathy Acker, who collaborated with the long-running group the Mekons on the album Pussy, Queen of the Pirates. Now might be a good time to mention this live footage of the collaborators performing on television, in which Acker dramatically reads from her work before segueing into the Mekons at their most catchily new wave, while everyone dances across the stage dressed as pirates. It is an amazing sight to behold. But more importantly, it suggests, like Lindsay Hunter taking the microphone on a Pissed Jeans song, that the overlap by a pair of artists with roots in the avant-garde can be surprisingly cathartic and ecstatic. It’s another way for musicians already taking their music in unexpected directions to go in an even more unexpected direction. In the case of Hunter and Pissed Jeans, for instance, this is twofold: adding a literally different voice to the band’s music, and folding in a representative of a new artistic discipline along the way.[[{"fid":"6700726","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The MEKONS & Kathy Acker ~ Live ~ Pussy, King of the Pirates ~","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Pussy, Queen of the Pirates shares its name with a book by Acker, though the two works are distinct from one another. In a 1996 interview for the zine Carbon 14, Acker talked about how she had sought to explore questions of race through writing the book. Her answer, however, ultimately explores larger questions about the nature of collaboration and the work that can result:“When I start it, I have no idea where it will end up. The same thing with the record with the Mekons. I didn't know it would end up the way it has. I was using material from the book, but I think it's also partly something else. Something you get from the record itself, or from the live performance.”That sense of “something else” isn’t easy to quantify. Some of it might be the notion of taking a listener (or a reader, or a viewer) by surprise; some of it might stem from the friction that emerges from the best collaborations (and is entirely absent from the worst). It does seem notable, however, that plenty of those collaborations maintain a connection, even now, to the same downtown scene from which Acker played a part.The producer of Pissed Jeans’s Why Love Now is, in fact, Lydia Lunch (who has herself worked across multiple artistic disciplines). A significant amount of the press the band did follow Why Love Now’s release delved into the band’s working relationship with their two high-profile collaborators. In the case of Hunter, that came via vocalist Matt Korvette’s admiration for her writing.“I’ve just been a fan of hers and I reached out and we became friends,” he told writer Sarah Rose Etter in an interview for Fanzine. “I just love her writing. I wanted her to write something for the insert initially, but then I wondered does anyone even read inserts?” And so the band and Hunter worked together to create “I’m A Man,” which both feels like a natural extension of their sound and a necessary counterpoint to it. In an interview with the music website CLRVYNT, Korvette was asked about Lunch’s reaction to the finished song. His response? “Oh man, she was moshing to it. It was great!”There are, of course, such collaborations whose lineage can’t be traced directly to that New York scene of yore. The Philadelphia-based poet, musician, and performance artist Camae Ayewa makes music under the name Moor Mother; her album Fetish Bones was released last year by Don Giovanni Records, best-known for being the home to music by punk artists ranging from Downtown Boys to Screaming Females to Alice Bag. In her introduction to her interview with Ayewa at Pitchfork, writer Jenn Pelly wrote that “she’s posted some 100 recordings to Bandcamp, with samples ranging from children’s hand games to Fugazi’s ‘Waiting Room’ bassline to the poets Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange.” Here, too, there’s a juxtaposition between the literary and the musical; here, too, the result is nearly impossible to classify, but frequently gripping.Trying to force cross-disciplinary collaborations can backfire in a host of ways. But the upswing in these sorts of punk/literary collaborations feels organic: the increased presence of writers at music festivals suggests a move towards increased overlap, and as writers have embraced more performative readings, some have also gotten attention for that side of their persona—author Amelia Gray, for one, has recorded two sessions for the online music archive Daytrotter. A number of DIY performance spaces are also taking a cue from bygone days and hosting multidisciplinary work: the calendar for the Brooklyn DIY space Silent Barn shows readings and zine events alongside a host of punk and experimental artists. The result, often, is thrilling and unexpected: artists of different stripes challenging and complementing each other, and forging new ground together in the process.
The Literary Turf of Jay McInerney

Speaking with the author of Bright, Precious Days about resisting contempt for your characters, differing degrees of infidelity, and the health of the novel in 2017.

The story of how Jay McInerney met Raymond Carver reads like a cheesy novel. After college, McInerney lands a job at The New Yorker as a fact checker, but he’s no good at it and the magazine fires him. Unemployed, and with not much to do, he’s hanging out in his lower Manhattan apartment one day when the phone rings. On the line is his old roommate from Williams College, Gary Fisketjon, who’s already making a name for himself as an editor at Knopf. Fisketjon tells McInerney that he and his colleague Gordon Lish just had lunch with Carver. But the two editors have to go back to the office and the not-yet-legendary writer is at loose ends until a reading that night, so the poet and master of the short story needs someone to entertain him for the afternoon. Because Fisketjon is well aware of his fondness for Carver’s work, McInerney assumes the call is a practical joke. But soon he hears a buzz at his door.At first, the two men—from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different generations—don’t really have much in common. Then McInerney serves some cocaine and the awkwardness melts away as they spend the afternoon talking about books and writers and writing. At 7:30, they suddenly realize they have just half an hour to get all the way uptown to Columbia University. Only a little late, Carver reads “Put Yourself in My Shoes” from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? collection. He reads it really, really fast.After returning to Syracuse, where he’s landed a teaching gig, Carver writes McInerney a letter to say that it occurs to him that perhaps living in New York City might not be that conducive to the young man’s goal of becoming a novelist. He suggests McInerney enroll at Syracuse University and work with him.And here’s your impossibly happy ending: the two become close, personally and professionally, and Carver writes a blurb for the cover of McInerney’s debut that reads: “A rambunctious, deadly funny novel that goes right for the mark—the human heart.” That 1984 book, Bright Lights, Big City, becomes a massive critical and commercial hit.*When a Hazlitt editor asked me if I wanted to interview McInerney, I assumed it was typecasting: an old white male from an upper middle class background to interview an old white male from an upper middle class background. The rationale ultimately wasn’t quite that shallow, though the idea did seem to spring from the notion that “every journalist of a certain age read Bright Lights, Big City.”He wasn’t wrong. The main character is a fact checker at a publication clearly based on The New Yorker, so obviously every magazine journalist read it. But so did everyone else, or at least everyone who read any literary fiction at all. The novel—which McInerney wrote in six weeks, the same amount of time it took William Faulkner to write As I Lay Dying—was a cultural and literary phenomenon. This was in the days before the Internet helped splinter us into discrete cultural tribes: you could actually go to a party and expect to talk to other people in depth about Bright Lights, Big City.McInerney was hailed as part of a new literary Brat Pack, a group that also included Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and others. The label had more to do with marketing young writers who wrote about sex and drugs than anything else, but it caught on. I enjoyed Jill Eisenstadt’s From Rockaway, but I gave up halfway through Ellis’s Less Than Zero—I couldn’t stand the novel’s amoral sensibility (or, if that book had a moral compass, I wasn’t smart enough to understand it). And Janowitz’s Slaves of New York remains on my bookshelf, unread for decades. But, since I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me my opinion of it, I never felt any guiltier about not reading that than any of the other books on my shelf that I haven’t read. No, the one you needed an opinion about—and wanted an opinion about—was Bright Lights, Big City. Even my wife was keen that I take this assignment because, she said, “I remember how excited you were to read it back then.”I reread it before I interviewed McInerney and was delighted that it totally still holds up (unlike much of the cultural output of the 1980s). In just 182 pages, the spare but energetic prose screams along as it documents—famously using second-person narration—the drug-fueled descent of young man whose mother has died, whose model wife has left him and who’s about to lose his coveted magazine job.All of which really did happen to McInerney. Just like something out of a novel.*When I met McInerney on a Friday afternoon last October, he was wearing a sports jacket, a light blue shirt without a tie, dark grey jeans and loafers. I found him fidgety: he flicked his fingers a lot and crossed and uncrossed his legs often. He’d been touring his eighth novel, Bright, Precious Days, for two months and I’m sure he was getting tired of it. But later, when I listened to the recording, I was surprised at how much he laughed—chuckled, actually—so maybe he wasn’t that bored.We were in a small meeting room in the Toronto offices of Penguin Random House, not a funky lower Manhattan flat. He was set to do a reading at the International Festival of Authors that evening. We did not snort cocaine. But we did talk about books, writers and writing. And British sports cars.I’d opened our conversation by asking if a friend of his had smashed his Austin Healey. He laughed nervously, said no and, I’m sure, wondered what kind of psycho I was. I pointed out that an Austin Healey gets demolished in both Bright Lights, Big City and Bright, Precious Days. "Does it?” he said. “Oh, wow, you're right. I didn't realize that until just now.”And then, a memory: he told me the story of the time his father wrecked an MG. McInerney lived in Vancouver from Grade 4 to Grade 8 and on Saturdays, his father would take him out in the sports car to do errands. One day, McInerney was playing with friends and his father went without him and wrapped the MG around a telephone pole. The passenger side was obliterated. “If I had been in the car that day, I would no longer be here."McInerney’s first car was an Austin Healey. "Like my father, I liked British sports cars. And still do,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time by the side of the road waiting for tow trucks when he was younger because of unreliable British automobiles. "Suffering for style because they are cool looking cars, but they aren't very practical."Both Bright Lights, Big City and Bright, Precious Days also feature hilarious scenes with ferrets. And there are drugs in both. But I’m not suggesting McInerney has just rehashed his first book. Far from it. While the writing in his latest might be more sedate than in his debut, it’s more assured and the characters have more psychological depth. For me, reading Bright, Precious Days was like re-discovering an old band I used to like but had, for whatever reason, stopped listening to.*As we spoke, McInerney drank from a mug with a Penguin cover of The Great Gatsby on it, which seemed a bit too perfect given that I’d found it impossible to not think of that great American novel when I read Bright, Precious Days. Although, like all of us, McInerney read Gatsby when he was young, it didn’t make an impression on him the way The Sun Also Rises or The Catcher in the Rye did. But once people started making comparisons after Bright Lights, Big City came out, McInerney went back to Fitzgerald’s work, was inspired and admits he’s been influenced by him ever since.He bristles, though, when readers describe Russell and Corrine Calloway as fabulously wealthy. The couple at the centre of Bright, Precious Days, don’t have particularly lucrative jobs by Manhattan standards. Russell is a publisher of literary fiction and Corrine runs a non-profit. And their city is a Darwinian place that has priced out people who haven't succeeded or who work in lower-income fields. So the Calloways rent their one-washroom loft, eat out only three times a week—about four times fewer than everyone else in Manhattan, jokes McInerney—and hang out almost exclusively with people who are richer than they are. Still, most readers would likely consider them fabulously wealthy even if no one in New York sees them that way.But the protagonists’ relative economic status is integral to the novel, which takes place between America’s mid-term elections in 2006 and the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “For me, it's important that Russell and Corrine, even though they are glamorous, are in some sense something of an Everyman, Everywoman,” he says. “And even though they live in this really exotic setting of New York City, their struggles really aren't that different than people living in small Midwestern towns. They're struggling to keep up.”In a 2002 piece called “Why Gatsby is so great,” McInerney noted, “Fitzgerald's best narrators always seem to be partaking of the festivities even as they shiver outside with their noses pressed up against the glass.” That’s also true of Russell Calloway, who, though he isn’t the narrator, is not unlike Nick Carraway: he observes a socioeconomic culture where people have more money but aren’t necessarily better or smarter people. And the setting is similar. “It's not deliberate,” the author says, “but certainly I like to think there's some continuity between Fitzgerald’s fictional New York-Long Island and mine.”McInerney, who moved around a lot as a kid, has made Manhattan his literary turf the way Carver made the Pacific Northwest his and Alice Munro has made Southwestern Ontario hers. He’s fascinated by the upper echelons of New York, a world not many people have access to and not many people write about with realism. “And,” he says, “there's a lot of fodder for satire there.”At one point, Calloway goes out for lunch with a possible investor and watches a pissing match between oenophiles: his host and a table of financial hotshots send glasses of increasingly rare wines back and forth in an effort to impress each other. McInerney wishes he could take credit for completely inventing this scene but it wasn't too far off what he saw back in 2006 and 2007 at Veritas and Cru, two “meccas of wine worship” that boasted $5,000 and $10,000 bottles on their lists. His celebrity as a novelist and wine columnist meant people often offered him glasses of expensive vintages (similarly, many people offered him cocaine after Bright Lights, Big City came out). “You can't write about New York without making fun of a lot of the ridiculous behavior,” he says. “I mean, if you did, you'd be a fool.”Inevitably, the other book I thought of while reading Bright, Precious Days was Bonfire of the Vanities. McInerney calls it a great New York novel, thanks to Tom Wolfe’s talent as both a stylist and a sociologist. The two writers ran into each other at a dinner in late 1984 or early 1985, and the man in the white suit said, “You did something really cool there. Nobody's written a literary novel about New York in years.” At the time, Wolfe had been going around saying the novel was dead. “That stuck in my mind,” says McInerney, “because three or four years later, he wrote a very big literary-slash-commercial novel set in New York. So I like to think I had a bit of influence on him.”Although Wolfe mocks relentlessly, McInerney oscillates between satire and romance. Some chapters in Bright, Precious Days are more Evelyn Waugh or Wolfe, he says, while others are more Fitzgerald. Sending up the lives of the affluent is part of his objective, but far from the point of the book. After all, like everyone else, New Yorkers struggle with questions of life and love and fidelity and family.While Wolfe seems contemptuous of all of his characters, McInerney is fond of the Calloways, whom he first wrote about in 1992’s Brightness Falls and then again in 2006’s The Good Life. “The only thing that keeps me from liking Bonfire of the Vanities as much as Balzac's great novels, for instance, is there's nobody that I really identify with or care about terribly much,” he says, before pointing out that Wolfe isn’t trying to make us care about them. “I genuinely like Russell and Corrine or I wouldn't keep writing about them.”In fact, he’ll likely return to them in a future novel. He doesn’t want to follow them into assisted living—he is, by his own admission, too much of a glamour hound for that—but, at only fifty-one by the end of Bright, Precious Days, they aren’t ready for the old folks home just yet.In the meantime, he’d like to think people in other parts of the world, rural and urban, can relate to them. After all, money and bright lights aside, most of their problems are normal ones. “There is the issue of what dress Corrine is going to wear to the gala,” he says, “but most of the time she is dealing with more fundamental questions.” These include their kids, their jobs, their home—and their marriage. “Ultimately, this book is about marriage and relationships as much as it's about making fun of rich people,” he says. “More than it's about making fun of rich people.”*McInerney’s current wife is Anne Hearst, sister of Patty and granddaughter of William Randolph. At 62, it’s his fourth marriage. So it’s a subject he was some experience with.Fidelity, he argues, is the central question of marriage and the eternal question that the domestic novel—including classics such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary—inevitably deals with. “The interesting marriages are the ones that survive the crises rather than the ones that sail placidly along the untroubled waters,” he says. His parents had a good one, but his mother had an affair. “I think my mom was glad that she stayed in the marriage. In the end, she believed in it.”To their friends, the Calloways seem to be the perfect couple. They aren’t, of course, and both have had affairs. But they’re still together after more than twenty-five years. The book considers whether it’s different when a husband cheats than when a wife does. And McInerney wanted to see how far you could push a guy like Russell before the marriage’s trust was irreparably broken. “Male infidelity is certainly less surprising and it seems to be somehow less consequential,” he says, suggesting that it’s a dog bites man story when a guy cheats on his wife and more of a man bites dog story when a woman cheats on her husband. “I think where it really differs is the whole question of what's forgivable, because male pride is a much more obdurate thing than female pride.”*In 1984, McInerney’s publisher told him the novel was dying and nobody his age read, so while he’d written a good book, he shouldn’t have any big expectations for Bright Lights, Big City. That sentiment was wrong then, and a succession of writers—he cites Nathan Hill as a recent example—have proven it wrong ever since.So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Bright, Precious Days is also about books and the publishing industry. McInerney says his relationship with Fisketjon, who has been editing him since he was writing short stories in college, informed the characters. But anyone who knows the infamous controversy over how Lish edited Carver will hear echoes of it in the relationship between Russell and a young short story writer named Jack Carson.I asked McInerney if he preferred Lish’s versions of Carver’s stories or Carver’s versions. His take: “I hate to say it, but I kinda like both.” Which was an answer I really liked. I told him I’d seen Carver at the International Festival of Authors in 1984. He’d read “Cathedral,” a story I’d initially come across in The Atlantic in 1981 and loved, but when I heard Carver read it, I suddenly realized how funny it was. McInerney, who’d first heard an oral version of the story before there was a cathedral in it, told me, “He always made things funny when he read them.”For many people in publishing today, there’s not much to laugh about. But Russell’s optimism—or at least his refusal to be pessimistic—about the industry reflects McInerney’s view. The fracturing of the culture means it might be harder for a literary novelist to seize the popular imagination the way he did with Bright Lights, Big City. But he’s encouraged that the novel endures.Sure, they don’t have the cultural centrality they did in the 1920s when Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner were putting them out. “But I like that young people are still interpreting the world through the vehicle of the novel,” he says, “and it's wonderful that it hasn't died yet.”
Learning and Unlearning: On Writing About Sex Work

There’s an easy way to avoid the clichéd, harmful, and just plain wrong narratives about sex work: actually talk to sex workers.

My job was to show up, look good, and entertain the mystery man behind the hotel room door, which, thankfully, I mostly found fun and easy. Married business men were the usual clientele, and there was always plenty to talk about. Conversation was the gateway to sex. If I could connect to a man, if we could make each other laugh, or if we had common interests, I would have no qualms about having sex with him; that’s what I was there to do, after all. In fact, having learnt a bit about his mind, I wanted to know his body. How it moved, how he fucked. Truly, a jolly time was had by all. And I was making a ridiculous amount of money, too. —Andrea Werhun, author of Modern WhoreA few years ago, I wrote three hundred pages of a Depressing Novel about a sex worker. Though the story began in Thailand, during her childhood, it opened on her present-day adult life and work as a high-end escort servicing wealthy businessmen and oil executives in Calgary. Her present work was complexly linked to the traumatic experiences she’d had as a child and adolescent. But the narrative arc kept springing awry, like a segmented tent pole on a windy day; you know the kind, with elastic cord stretched tight inside. The tension—sproing!—between my fictional story and the true stories that sex workers kept telling me was too much. The more I wrote her, the less true my character became.To be honest, this did not surprise me. This sad adult character, with her weighty childhood memories, wasn’t based in truth. She was a lie.I had relatives and friends who were or had been in the sex trade. These women were real; they were honest about their work, which had its difficulties, especially for those who had worked the street. But their lives had never been anything like the sombre, wordy drama my novel was becoming. Beyond their specialized work, these women’s lives were “normal,” whatever that means. When it came to their jobs, they were like labouring human beings all over the world. They wanted safe working conditions, good healthcare, and legal protection of their basic human rights. Some of them had been hurt by their clients, or their families, or the police; some of them had never met an abusive client and had worked quietly out of condo buildings their entire careers. One thing they had in common was how profoundly tired they were of other people’s disrespect, hatred, and miscomprehension when it came to them and their livelihoods. All of them supported complete decriminalization of sex work.For the past couple thousand years, most societies have pathologized sex work and have responded to sex workers in moralistic, punitive, and violent ways. I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist religion, where only married heterosexuals were allowed to have sex; everything else was disgusting and bad, the pathway to annihilation. As a child, I learned that if I masturbated or had sex before marriage, God was going to kill me. He would kill anyone who did any bad sexual thing, especially women. This was borne out in biblical stories, of course: most of the sexually transgressive women in the Bible come to tragic ends.However, a couple years before the execution threats, I’d snuggled in front of the TV with my older sister. I was eight; I did not yet know what sex was. We watched a scantily clad dancer on screen twist acrobatically around a pole. An aspiring gymnast myself, I was delighted. She was beautiful, but already blurring into the background as loud powerful men took over the scene. No doubt the movie revolved around them as surely as the stripper revolved around her pole. A moment later, and she had completely disappeared from view—in hindsight, an important first lesson about how the usual storylines of our culture make sex workers invisible.I asked my older sister what the woman had been doing. “Taking off her clothes. For money! She’s a stripper.” Terrible, thrilling word. I felt its import and power—look what she could do on that pole!—without understanding what it all meant. But the power of that half-naked woman remained with me, as certain as the power of the vengeful Christian god who was soon to take over my young mind and body.*Any deep study of history, myth, and etymology confirm they’re all of a piece: the naked woman and the god, the goddess and the naked man, the sacred and the profane. They’re braided together, woven back through time to ancient fertility cults that honoured the awesome and mysterious generative powers of both male and female sexualities.One root for the word “whore” finds its origins in the name of one of the earliest ancient goddesses, Xar, or Kar, whose name meant desire, heart, beloved—she who stands at the heart of the world. Cardia in Greek, meaning heart, is still a term of endearment, just as cuore is in Italian, and carino in Spanish means beloved. As Kar was absorbed by Greek culture, a further derivation of her name is possibly xora, for dance, after the ritualistic routines the attendants of the earliest temples would perform. Xora is closely related to ora, for time and hour; the dances themselves marked the seasons and times of the temples. Priestesses and their attendants sometimes had sex with worshippers in exchange for offerings to the temple; some participated in orgiastic fertility rites. Over a thousand years, as monotheistic, masculine-god religions established themselves, so-called “pagan” temples were destroyed or transformed into the churches, synagogues and mosques of the “one true God.” The temple attendants and priestesses were forced out of these repurposed holy places. Unhoused, no longer holy, they became some of the first street-walking sex workers in history.Many languages (Greek, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, German, French, Russian, to name but a few) all contain variations on the words ora, horo, hora. They mean, variously, time, hour, dance, and whore.Working with customers as a barista or waitress, I quickly realized that service with a smile—in conjunction with a plunging neckline—guaranteed a top gratuity, especially from men ... They wanted to feel wanted. With every grin ... and tasteful boobie jiggle, another toonie dropped into the tip jar. One day, it occurred to me that I was using my sexuality, my beauty, and my youth to make money. But I was making minimum wage, subtly squeezing my tits together for pocket change. I knew these guys wanted to have sex with me, so I thought, Why not, then? Why not get straight to the point and have sex with them for money? Why degrade myself and live under the poverty line when I could "degrade" myself and live like a queen?—Andrea WerhunAs the seasons changed, so did my novel. I dropped the tragic sex-worker character, and, given permission by talking with women who made their livings with their sexuality (and their charm, and intelligence, and open-mindedness), I started thinking more about the role of sex in my own life: who it made me, how it delighted me, how my sex life had changed over the years. I started writing a new book, with women characters who were essentially happy and healthy, deeply engaged in life, and interested—surprise!—in sex.One of those characters is a sex worker in her thirties, who is slowly transitioning out of the industry, getting close to working as a psychologist who specializes in sex therapy. But she has anxiety about that coming change in her life; she knows she will miss her first career. I wanted to show that many sex workers love doing what they do. Everyone I talked to during the course of my research wanted to be in the sex trade. They liked using their bodies in various sexual ways in exchange for payment. More than one of them laughed at that pitying formulation, “she sells her body for money.” Marissa, a worker in her forties, told me, “If I were selling a kidney, or an ovary, sure, I’d be selling my body for money. And big fucking deal, it’s my body. Nobody gets all insulting and pissy if you donate a kidney to someone who’s dying, right? So what’s the big deal about sucking a guy’s cock or doing it doggy-style in a slutty bustier?” She laughed; I observed that she might consider a career in standup comedy. “No way, it doesn’t pay well enough. Besides, I’m serious! Sex work is a lot safer, technically speaking, than donating a kidney. It does nothing negative or harmful to my body and sometimes it’s even fun. That’s all I sell: my time, my expertise. I take my whole body with me when I leave. Just like any other person who has a job.”These women educated me. More and more, I was reading their blogs and websites. Still, I had to consciously work to root out cultural, societal, religious and even feminist notions about who did sex work and why. I had to ask the women, are you doing this because you’ve been abused? Because you’ve been coerced, in some way, even in the past?Nathalie Lefevbre had so many clients ask her that question that she addressed it on her website, under the tab “Ask me anything.” In response to the question “Are you being exploited?” she writes:“You’re lovely to ask. I would be equally worried about exploitation and choice in the context of sex work. As a privileged, white, able-bodied and educated young woman, this is a choice I’ve made among many equally appealing opportunities. I work full-time outside of escorting as a grad student, research assistant, and teacher’s assistant, and feel extremely fulfilled in my employment. I enjoy the interpersonal intimacy that sex brings, and companionship has brought a lot of happiness and fulfillment to my life.”When I first contacted Nathalie and told her that I was researching Canadian sex workers’ lives, she was generous with her time and expertise. She was also politically savvy, kind-hearted, and funny. Like other sex workers I’d interviewed, her humane directness about sex combined with her youth and intelligence were attractive on various levels. I always enjoyed talking to her. After our first few interviews on the phone, I met her in person. Unsurprisingly, I was attracted to her sexually, even though she wasn’t really my type. (Flexibility is a virtue.) If my husband and I had an extra $800 to spare, she would have been a wonderful person to get naked with for a couple of hours. I understood why her reviews on CERB—the Canadian Erotic Review Board—were glowing and sweet.“I tell clients that I enjoy physical intimacy and gentleness. Sure, things can get intense, too. But it usually takes a few dates to build up that kind of trust with someone. I’ve never had a bad experience with a client. I have a lot of privilege in the kind of sex work I do. I have the ability to stay safe. I am able to take care of myself.” She only sees clients who can offer a reference of safety from another service provider. “Not everyone can make this kind of work safe for themselves. How could they, when society and our laws still denigrate and endanger sex workers?...I offer a space for people to express themselves sexually. A lot of men—and women, too—simply don’t have that in their lives. They’re in sexless or otherwise unhappy marriages where they stay because they love their children and feel they are doing the responsible thing. Every other client I see is like that. They are often ashamed of the fact that they’re married, and seeing me. I tell them that I do not judge them, and I do not. I believe in the humanization not just of the sex worker, but of the client, of the man.”People with histories of abuse come from all walks of life and work in all kinds of industry. Sex workers aren’t just abuse victims re-enacting their trauma over and over again for money. This fantasy infantilizes a whole swath of the sex working population without a single shred of evidence. Why does sex work only make sense within the framework of worker victimhood? Why is the empowered, sex-work-is-real-work whore so unbelievable? A few thousand years of indoctrination against the whore has taught us a lascivious woman is damaged, not to be trusted and deserves to be abused. —Andrea WerhunThe Depressing Novel, all three hundred pages of it, sits in the bottom drawer. I won’t be rereading it any time soon. The book that replaced it is a funny, erotic, set-in-my-neighbourhood tale called The Change Room. It features a woman character—Eliza, a busy middle-class, middle-aged working mother, like me—who in the midst of her jam-packed life meets a sexy woman named Shar at the community pool. Though Eliza truly loves her husband, there’s not much going on in the bedroom. The first time these two women meet—in the shower room, just before entering the change room—Shar plugs right into every sexual electrical socket in Eliza’s body. They quickly become lovers, and the novel follows how this and other secrets change (or do not change) the characters’ lives. (FYI: No one in this book is punished, murdered, or beaten for transgressing sexual norms.) Shar is a sex worker, though she doesn’t tell Eliza that. She has complexities, failings, and wounds of her own, but she is not depressed, nor is she acting out some long-ago abuse. She takes good care of herself; she loves her work. She is also pursuing post-doc studies in psychology. Shar lives with that open hearted courage that I admire in real-life sex workers, even though our governments and societies leave them vulnerable to harassment and violence by refusing to decriminalize their profession. It is the defining paradox of the sex worker’s life: these fearless people—women, men, trans—are also the most willfully, callously endangered by those who want to control them.Sex workers’ right are human rights. How many times will they have to tell their fellow citizens this before we listen to them with an equal courage, at the political level, and decriminalize sex work permanently?
Selling the Sun King

Mass intimacy requires a dilution of one’s complexities. In order to become a celebrity, a person necessarily becomes a personage.

On May 14, 1643, thirty-three years after taking the French throne, Louis XIII died of complications from tuberculosis. Throughout his reign, he had found difficulty in centralizing power, and felt forced to exile his mother, Marie de’ Medici, and execute many of her followers in order to stave off both Italian influence and the followers of his late father, Henry IV, who had been assassinated when he was just eight years old.Louis XIII left the throne to his four-year-old son, who would ably learn from his father’s mistakes. When Louis XIV entered his twenties, he realized he would have to cement his monarchical legitimacy not exclusively through the violent realpolitik of his father, but also by making himself into a celebrity—someone the people and the courts could understand, could like, could dream of being. It was largely through soft power that he would affirm and centralize his domestic rule.In order to do so, he declared himself “the Sun King.” He ordered that his triumphs on the battlefield be engraved and distributed. He had two arches—the Porte Saint-Denis and the Porte Saint-Martin—constructed, as well as two squares—the Place des Victoires and the Place Vendôme, both of which surrounded statues of him. He had Versailles turned from a hunting lodge into a palace, bringing together the previously decentralized French nobility, and he hired Israel Silvestre the Younger as his designer and engraver, who was tasked with distributing high-quality etches and prints of the new palace and gardens to the French populous. Perhaps better than any other monarch in history, Louis XIV understood that power could be realized most efficiently and most persuasively not by hard-fought accomplishment but by performance and artifice.Today, we would call someone like Louis XIV, who was adept at managing his image and performing a high social role, a celebrity. But the history of celebrities as we now know them is a relatively recent one. In its current definition—as someone who is given or achieves major public recognition—the word dates back to only 1849, when it first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, just a decade after photography was commercially introduced. Mass intimacy requires a dilution of one’s complexities. In order to become a celebrity, a person necessarily becomes a personage.*The contemporary celebrity is a slightly different breed than the Sun King. The most interesting and salient aspect of modern celebrity culture is the recent addition of the “attributed celebrity,” the kind of celebrity to which Donald Trump and the Kardashians belong. As the sociologist Chris Rojek noted in his book Celebrity, fame can be “ascribed” (because of one’s lineage), “achieved” (because of one’s talent), but it can also now be “attributed.” While the first two paths have been common throughout history, the third is quite new. By definition, the attributed celebrity is associated with qualities that the populous believes are useful and desirable but may not actually be so.Attributed celebrities are, as Rojek wrote, “cultural fabrications.” Rojek, who published Celebrity in 2001, presciently saw that the existence of attributed celebrities was largely due to “the expansion of the mass-media.” Via social media today, the masses have a direct say in an individual’s public recognition. Remarkably, the attributed celebrity does not have to be an achiever of anything in particular, an original thinker, or a groundbreaking iconoclast. As well as being anti-elitist and populist in nature, attributed celebrity culture is also conceptually anti-neoliberal: little must be done to earn celebrity and one does not have to positively affect the market to be made famous (although it helps). On shows such as The Bachelor, The Apprentice, or Survivor, it is the contestants’ characters—more so than their accomplishments—that give the viewing public reason to watch.Celebrity culture has been particularly successful with the rise of mass dissemination of images. (The term itself, perhaps unsurprisingly, grew out of the era of photography’s invention.) Projected on our screens, the celebrities we choose can do our living for us. We assign them to positions of power and notoriety, and then let them live and feel on our behalf, whether it’s in our best interest or not.So why do some people catch the public’s favor in such a way as to vault them to celebrity status in the first place? Historically, a central reason has been their characteristic adherence to tropes. In order to trust someone, it is helpful if the populous feels as though they have seen that person before—in history, or, perhaps even more importantly, in stories.As anyone who has spent time watching reality television knows, there is a standard cast: the villain, the sweetheart, the charmer, the gold-digger, the attention obsessive. There is also often the ditz, the moralist or goodie-goodie, and the everyman. We have seen these roles before. They fit into our oldest stories. In his fourth century B.C.E. book The Characters, Aristotle’s student Theophrastus introduced the types of characters he’d seen across Ancient Greece, which are, in essence, the same characters as one sees on an episode of Big Brother or Survivor: “the talkative,” “the show-off,” “the coward,” “the basely covetous,” “the penny-pincher,” “the boor,” “the officious,” “the flatterer”—and twenty more. The best way for people in positions of power to be understood, beloved, and legitimized is by their adherence to these cookie-cutter character frameworks, which have lasted millennia. In this way, the would-be celebrity is understandable to everyone—beyond linguistic, social, cultural, even intellectual barriers.*Is there a truth behind the type? In the case of Donald Trump, will we ever know who he is? What really comprises his relationship with Melania? With his children? What are his deepest, most heartfelt opinions? “It’s like a Rubik’s cube trying to figure this guy out,” Joe Biden once told The New York Times. “We have no freakin’ idea what he’s gonna do.”This mystery is not accidental. Like any attributed celebrity, Trump understands that mass intimacy requires simplification of one’s characteristics. Only so much can be presented at once. To be best understood, one must present a consistent image while, ideally, adhering to a recognizable type. If Trump is to maintain the favor of those who put him in power, he cannot change from his current tropes of “ruthless businessman,” “man’s man,” and “independent,” which vaunted him to celebrity status in the first place. Although some of his supporters claimed that he would become “more presidential” upon ascending to the role, Trump surely knew that this would be a betrayal of those who made him a celebrity in the first place. His celebrity “role” is not, and has never been, “presidential.” When Trump pushes past Montenegro’s leader Dusko Markovic at a NATO conference in Brussels, when Trump tries (and fails) to intimidate Emmanuel Macron with his signature aggressive handshake, he is only playing his role.Many of his voters—who watched The Apprentice, who bought his Trump-branded clothing, attended Trump University, and who appreciated his anti-Establishment rhetoric and all the others characteristics that fit within his pre-established trope—are more comfortable seeing that little has changed between candidate and president. He installed gold drapes in the Oval Office; he still wears his wide-lapelled Brioni suits and keeps up his combed-over hair; he’s still out golfing, and, based on his orange complexion and the little white goggle lines around his eyes, he seems to be continuing his tanning regimen.That is, he is still the same well-known trope-character, consistent and understandable—and understandability is comfortable. To understand a person is to understand the tropes he adopts. Perhaps it is to give Trump too much credit, but if he’s adept and interested in anything, it’s the creation of his own celebrity. Louis XIV, meet Donald Trump. Predictability, even the explosive kind, is the foundation of trust.
The Gift of Denis Johnson

For two years after one of my closest friends killed herself, I thought my grief and guilt were meant only to be handled privately. Tree of Smoke reeled me back into the world.

When I heard last week that Denis Johnson had died, I thought immediately of the opening pages of Tree of Smoke.The book centers on CIA officer William Sands and the soldier brothers James and William Houston, set amidst the Vietnam War. Johnson begins on a grand scale, his first sentence reporting the death of President Kennedy, before he squares up on a sobering up William Houston, wandering through the jungle in the Philippines, looking for wild boar to shoot. The scope of the prose is wide—“ten thousand sounds of the jungle”—and personal—“pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears.” Few writers can toggle between operatic registers and sneaky details as well as he could, and he flexes all these muscles in this short early scene. We follow Houston through the jungle until he stumbles on a small monkey. Houston shoots it: “He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.” Johnson’s prose matches the raw enormity of the revelation: “Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition.” Approaching the monkey as it dies, Johnson renders Houston coming into an elemental grasp with the world through death: “As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.”In something like a thousand words, Johnson creates this magnificent moment, ludicrous and far away, exaggerated but serene. The exact details of the book are distant from my life, but his reckoning with death and grief’s ability to disorder resonated deeply when I first read it. The book came to me two years after the suicide of my oldest friend, C.—two years during which I had tried to understand her death, but also which I fled from it, afraid of the pain. I was initially expecting from Tree of Smoke a macho, fun, war story—instead, for the first time in two years, I felt absolutely confronted. Houston’s disorientation and naivety chimed in me, rang through the guilt and sadness and loneliness. That surprise, and Johnson’s tender ruminations, helped me finally let my guard down. The overwhelming sadness that came with C.’s death had made it impossible to step back and think about our friendship; this trick of fiction opened that node in me.*C. had been a constant presence in my life from grade two onwards. She sat across from me in Ms. Yamamoto’s class, her afro crowned by a hair band. I remember her as a serious student, always volunteering for the hand-outs, and a kind one; in grade six, she organized a surprise birthday for a teacher no one liked. While she was at the head of the class, I would linger at the back, more interested in Iron Man and Shaq; once, I shoved a chunk of rubber eraser up my nose and, too scared to tell anyone, left it there for a few days when it wouldn’t come out.Our friendship remained distant until high school, when our lives began bending toward similar creative paths. Always pragmatic, she had a keen interest in design, and for the first time, I found someone to talk to about art. I babbled nonstop about Charlie Kaufman; C., having a more agile intellect, rightly refuted most of what I said. I was bored then, mostly—I wanted to get out of the neighbourhood I grew up in but had no means to do so. C.’s friendship provided me an escape; for a time, there was nobody I was closer to. She called me “little one” in Spanish and teased me about my mopey demeanor, the fact that I was two hours late to the first date I ever went on, and my love for the band Korn. My family life was imploding as my older brother swerved in and out of trouble, and my parents were fully occupied with him. I sensed a similar restlessness in C.—I knew she had a complicated relationship to family, and that, despite her responsibilities, she wished she could have thrown them off.During our final year of high school she was the president of the student association, and I would stop by her office between classes and at lunch; C. was an emotional conduit for almost everyone who entered the room, always ready to provide sensible advice. On top of school, she played a large role helping her family with her younger siblings. I’d known C. to be stressed sometimes, or overworked, but never sad or depressed—never such depths of inner agony, or anything that suggested her life would end that way.When I went to university we began to drift apart. As time pulled us further away from each other, I checked in less and less, but I never forgot those early years of friendship and the grounding force she was. Even now, my memories of her are crowded with laughter and joy, the picture of a person I could go to when I was lost, for intimacy both intellectual and emotional. When her death came, a few months since we had last spoken, I felt as disoriented as Houston in the jungle—what had I really known? I felt, as Johnson wrote of the soldier, “as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it.” Her death thwarted my conception of our friendship. That guilt trailed me through the years, veering into the path of any happier recollections: did I not ask? Did I not see? Was I content and greedy with our friendship, eager and willing to benefit from her emotional maturity, drawing more from the well of her generosity than she could handle?*Johnson captures, in those first pages of Tree of Smoke, the aloneness of death. It is a solitary act; no matter how many people surround you, no matter how you go, the experience is singularly yours. Grief mirrors this: the folds of memory C.’s death had exposed belonged to me. I cried at her funeral and then not again for two years. I had a new girlfriend who didn’t know C. and I didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts to her; I was encircled by my best friends, all of whom had known her, but I didn’t know, then, how to be vulnerable with men. The only person I could have brought something of such gravity to was gone.When I found Tree of Smoke, it lured me in. Johnson’s prose is a trap—beautiful, romantic, but deadly. I had spent those years living in a sort of daze. C.’s death had shifted my understanding of the world, but I had no tools to comprehend that shift (and as I’ve learned since, even having those tools doesn’t necessarily mean you can build peace). Those pages were a hallucination, a dream, a ghost—how could it be magic and real at the same time? Johnson’s gift was in centering the minute within his gigantic spiritual worlds, where people’s small, private tribulations were balanced next to larger existential dread. I had thought for those two years that my grief was meant to be handled privately and with fortitude—I felt strong shame at having wept at the service. To see myself in this Vietnam War novel, the anguish I had been feeling expressed so clearly, so publicly, to see it realized with such acuity, was startling. Reading that opening, I felt myself being reeled back into the world. I hadn’t known what to do—C. was dead, I was not, and I could only wonder if I had let her down. I could feel my sadness morphing into fear, and I kept an emotional distance from those around me best suited to help. The pain remained, not available to me, but still informing my decisions. When a less direct path presented itself, cloaked in a book about Americans in the Vietnam War, I was able to engage in the confrontation.Learning of Johnson’s death felt oddly engulfing. I spent the day in bed scrolling through online remembrances, trying to parse my own feelings, trying to understand why the death of this person I had never known was so evocative. After Tree of Smoke, I read all his other books, and while impressed, it was the opening of Tree of Smoke that I would return to. Its language remains startling: there is no machismo, no bravado, none of the charm and romance sometimes ascribed to his characters. There is only Houston, the grand gesture of death, and his terrible sorrow and guilt. It wasn’t until after reading Tree of Smoke that I visited C.’s gravesite for the first time, though it took watching the bizarre funeral scene in Lars and the Real Girl sometime later that same summer for me to burst into tears, unexpectedly and unwillingly, finally prompting me to ask my girlfriend that unanswerable question: how much of it was my fault?Even now, I wouldn’t say I understand C.’s death, or that it resides in me in some uncomplicated way. I still don’t always understand my own sadness, or the different ways in which I miss her. Nine years since her passing, I’m only now beginning to have relationships that eclipse it in duration. Nine years later, and I still wonder what wounds I might reopen. I’ve tried to hold onto one of the lessons Johnson’s writing helped teach me: that grief can reside in me alongside memories of C.’s laugh, her teasing, that intimacy, without corrupting them. And though Johnson is now gone too, it’s with a familiar thankfulness I can approach what he left behind, knowing that each time I return to them, those sentences will bring me to life.
Nine Short Essays About ‘Someone Great’ by LCD Soundsystem
[[{"fid":"6700626","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"LCD Sounsystem - Someone Great (DL Link)","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]1. What do those humming sounds at the beginning of the song remind you of? Personally, I always think of grocery store freezers, the sound of which falls into that wonderful category of “almost music.” Like the occasionally sweet scrapings of a tram-car, or the borderline drumming of a forceful rain. There’s a lot of excellent ambient music being generated by our surroundings. Poignant, emotional stuff. But, usually, I don’t pay attention to it, unless I’m pointedly avoiding another sensation. Like how, at the dentist, I’ll mentally harmonize with the drill so I don’t think about what it’s doing. Or how I realized, during my ex-girlfriend’s accomplished description of my emotional problems, that I really like the sighing sound of passing cars.There was a cool night outside. The wind was yelling in the trees. Crickets were talking about whatever. What I wanted was silence, but there’s really no such thing. Even in the most soundproof rooms, you can still hear your heartbeat. Sylvia Plath famously called it “the old brag of my heart,” but in such moments, my heartbeat always feels like an apology. Sorry this is still happening. Poom-poom. So sorry. Poom-poom.All through the song, the freezers keep going. They’re slightly dissonant, almost wrong. Over the course of a decade’s obsessive listening to this song, I’ve heard it all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the lyrics, or the beat, I zero in on those weird freezer sounds—the noise that precedes and outlasts everything else.2. Walter was a garbage collector—one of many in my neighbourhood, who made a little cash from collecting bottles and cans and returning them to the liquor store. Every morning, he’d stop by while I was smoking on the stoop, and tell me what he’d found. Sometimes there was treasure. An expensive pocketknife, or a birdwatching guide. Walter said that these moments made a hard job worthwhile.His job was hard because, first of all, garbage, but secondly, because he had to compete with a whole cabal of old ladies who had their own rival operation. He showed me a little map, a very detailed map, of all the neighbourhood alcoholics, in whose bins could be found endless paydirt.It was a great little friendship. But I screwed it all up when I told him I wanted to write a story about him. He immediately accused me of being a spy—a covert representative of the other collectors, who were all trying to crack his secrets. After that I still saw him in the neighbourhood but he didn’t make eye contact.3. I know there’s a new LCD Soundsystem album coming out. What I’ve heard so far is good. Whatever. I’m writing about the old shit. Because the new shit could never hit me in the same way.Sorry, James Murphy. Not that I think you’ll take it personally. You know about the power of the music of youth. That’s why most of your best songs are ripoffs. It all sounds like New Order, or Talking Heads, or Heaven 17. Because those are the artists who first terraformed your insides. They gave you feelings you can’t ever have again. Feelings you gave me, the first time I heard your second album.You know this song is special, too. During what was supposed to be your last concert, after you played it, you retreated to the corner of the stage, and you had a little cry. You had a little huddle with Nancy, who comforted you. (She’s the keyboard player, maybe the one making all the freezer sounds.) Who could blame you? Being haunted in your apartment alone is hard enough. Being onstage for the last time, I imagine, has a way of inflating all that jiggery-pokery of the soul.But it wasn’t the last time. Because you’re back now. Playing shows again, making new music. Given how much of a music nerd you are, you know how badly comebacks usually go. (For every Leonard Cohen, there’s a thousand Frank Blacks.) It doesn’t matter, though, does it? You’ve got to keep trying, even though failure is nearly assured—you’ve got to keep attempting the capture of what looms inside you. Even though you can’t possibly, because, as the song goes, it keeps coming. It grows and grows. And yet, you can’t stop reaching out, as far as you can. You have no choice.4. Rumour has it that the song is about the death of James Murphy’s therapist, Dr. George Kamen, to whom the album is dedicated. The interpretation fits the lyrics well: “I wish that we could talk about it, but there, that’s the problem.” In the context of a doctor/patient relationship, this is clever: Murphy called Kamen whenever somebody died, and then Kamen went and died himself.But the rumour is incorrect. I know who the song is about, and it’s not some dead Bulgarian doctor. First of all, the person the song is really about is not dead. Secondly, to my knowledge, she’s never met James Murphy. Strictly speaking, she never actually existed, being that she was a fantasy I rudely assigned to a real person—an excellent person, really, but not the boundless rescuer I’d thought she was, the suture for my nonspecific wounds. James Murphy has never revealed her name, and neither will I.5. Here’s a pasta recipe.—Cut an onion in half. Throw it in a saucepan with a can of diced San Marzano tomatoes, and half a stick of butter. Boil it until it’s reduced to about 70% of its original volume. Season to taste.—Boil spaghetti in generously salted water. Wait for it to get nice and toothsome.—While you’re waiting, try and identify what’s going on with your sense of being somehow alone on the planet. Is it abating? Or are you just getting used to it?—And also, what happened with all that stuff you used to be passionate about? The German poetry, the documentaries, and so on. Whatever you thought about in school. You got distracted somehow. Diverted by all that laundry and that career stuff. Then the diversions became mostly everything. But that turns out to be okay. You can have lots of fun decorating your living room, and kissing your girlfriend before the void. Sometimes you cook dinner.—The sauce and the pasta are burning. You forgot about both of them. Disconnect the smoke alarm, dump the burning food in the sink, and go out on the deck.—Outside, the city, below you. Just beyond your view from four stories up, everything is going on. A dog is reading the instructions it finds in the pee of another. In a barely lit room, an atom-splitting gaze arrests its human object. And you, a soft, peachy coward, safe for the moment, alone on a Sunday evening.6. Everyone should date my girlfriend. But I am, so you can’t. Sorry about that. We have a great time. It’s the best relationship I’ve ever been in, and every day I learn more about love. Sometimes we drive to a mafia-owned bakery that’s open 24 hours, and nervously eat calzones under the fluorescent light.But nostalgia is immune to this knowledge—that I’m happier now than I ever was. Nostalgia says, “remember when your heart felt like neon wine, and you were drinking it through a crystal straw?” It sits ready, somewhere in a special foxhole of grey matter, waiting for the slightest moment of discontent or unease. Springing all over the mind, it says, “you were tremendous once. How did you arrive in this dreary circus?”7. Any time you spend with someone could be the last time. Which is so weird, because, usually, you don’t know that’s the case. Nobody tells you. Fate never says, in a buttery murmur, that after this brief chat, you won’t see Jimmy again on earth.Every remark is potentially final—potentially the last thing you tell a friend before they die, or just go somewhere. Most are wildly insufficient for that purpose. For example, scrolling through Facebook Messenger, I see that the last message I sent to Jill was: “nice nice re: format.” Imagine if she never heard from me again. Bye, Jill. Nice nice re: format.Most people I’ve ever met, in fact, I’ll probably never see again. All those kids from school. We’ve already exchanged our last looks, our unceremonious farewells. Troy saw me last when I was being pushed into the mud by another boy. Pippa gave me a concerned look as I left the party abruptly. My grandmother was having trouble eating a biscuit. “That’s kind of gross,” I thought. She was a good person.And at some point, I’ll have trouble eating biscuits, too. My jaw will weaken, and my gag reflex will lose its refinement. “Are you okay?” my currently unborn nephew will say. A few hours later, I’ll stop breathing, after saying something pithy, like, “could you pass me the tissues.”8. “You’re smaller than my wife imagined / surprised you were human.”9. It’s easy to be good to someone when you no longer exist. Your coffee breath no longer lingers in their nose. Your head doesn’t stain their pillow. Once or twice you let them down—neglected their emotions simply because you couldn’t be bothered. That doesn’t happen anymore.You never tell them the same stories twice. You never tell them a story at all. You watch their story elapse, from a brief, impassible distance, just around a corner in the sky. Their bar mitzvah, their recitals. They do a decent job of being alive. Not perfect, but pretty good. You praise their little foibles. The fidgeting nobody else can see.You get prettier, too, when you’re not around. Your less appealing angles forgotten. Your yellow teeth. The kind of impressionistic soft focus that flatters everyone. All of that sweet Terrence Malick garbage. That’s how they see you.And downtown, they walk beneath condominiums that make expensive shadows in the post-rain air as thick as cake. They occupy the very last parcel of oxygen on the rush hour bus. They feel dirty, and when they get home and wash the dirt off, they feel old. “I should catch up on email,” they say, to nobody in particular.Who could forget you? Everyone. But only partly.