Hazlitt Magazine

The Magic of Alleyways

An ode to a vibrant public commons.

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of MTV Books

How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?

Relatability Gambits Will Never Die

Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.

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The Magic of Alleyways

An ode to a vibrant public commons.

            “Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...” -Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978     ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life”   On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering.   That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys?  The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day. Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love. This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth. Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes. ACT II: “Question Everything” My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago. Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire. That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile.   From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.”    Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today. He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate” If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message. Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys. For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places. More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites.  It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too. As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons. One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky. “Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...” For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true. ACT IV: “The Hourglass” In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls. For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins. The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history.  But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear.  Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.”   Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street. And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his  battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart.   The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit? ACT V: “Speed Control Zone” Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls. This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed. The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe.   And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog. Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life. That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon. Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t. Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.” With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.
Relatability Gambits Will Never Die

Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.

Welcome to Untimely Meditations, a monthly column about fashion for people who hate fashion time, and are perpetually late.  There was a time when the French ruled the world. Now, it seems more like playacting. Enter #SadMacron, a collection of images from February and March that the internet memefied, poking fun at the French president’s seeming burlesque of seriousness. Taken by Macron’s official photographer, Soazig de la Moissonoière, the pictures show the president after a (seemingly fruitless?) conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Missing his characteristic navy blue blazer, and attempting something that approximates human emotion, these images seek to launch Macron into the pantheon of historical importance. For those of us who missed Cold War myth-making the first time around, the #SadMacron images are underwhelming updates to the genre. Stealing Kennedy valour, Macron goes for the just-add-water mystique of legacy building. He colourizes and reverses Jacques Lowe’s “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph that sees JFK turned away from the audience, without internalizing why that image works. Steadying himself on the resolute desk, caught between two flags—the symbol of the people on one side, and the symbol of the presidency on the other—Lowe’s interpretation of Kennedy hinges precisely on the tension between the president’s strong silhouette and the gravity of his office. Cutting a shadowy figure, Kennedy is armoured in a midcentury suit, the look calling to mind his wife Jackie’s plea to designer Oleg Cassini to “PROTECT ME.” In contrast to Kennedy, Macron drops the jacket, and faces the audience, caught between nothing in particular. Bracketed by rococo cherubs, he is a “sober” intrusion into a world of pastels and gold. The removal of the suit jacket implies a “willingness to get down to work;” yet, without loosened tie or rolled up sleeves, it looks as if the president is posing. In other images of the #SadMacron series, we see furrowed brows and attempts at despair, all of which have the subtlety and range of a staged paparazzi shot. Yet, what is most compelling here is not what the president does or does not do, but rather the tension between the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and the codes of modernity, best exemplified through Macron’s crisp suit. * Unlike the gilded whimsy of an Ancien Regime interior, the contemporary suit means business. It is a triumph of the bourgeois mode over the aristocracy that came before it. Even without the accoutrements of work—namely, piles of papers, folders, and envelopes—the suit exudes seriousness. Changing little over centuries, the suit intrigues due to its simplicity of design, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the physique and character of its wearer, eschewing most ornamentation. For the architectural modernist, Adolf Loos, the suit was a holy garment. Per the fashion historian, Christopher Breward, Loos saw the suit as a “fundamental component of an enlightened existence…the suit had seemingly always been there to remind man of the responsibilities and prizes attached to his higher state.” It became the garment of masculine republicanism par excellence, with the psychologist J.C. Flügel remarking that it was a sign of “the great masculine renunciation,” which argued that from the late 18th century onwards, men abandoned the more ostentatious garments of the past, opting instead for sartorial minimalism. Flugel writes: “as commercial and industrial ideals conquered class after class, until they finally became accepted by the aristocracies of the more progressive countries, the plain and uniform costume associated with such ideals has, more and more, ousted the gorgeous and varied garments of the older order.” Despite being called “Jupiter” in the French press—a veiled reference to both a god and the French king, Louis XIV—Macron is neither. His penchant for the suit reveals the heart of a bourgeois technocrat whose proximity to the Sun King perhaps comes from schoolboy imaginings, lofty ambitions, and a certain inflexibility of temperament. We accept gods and kings to be more opulent in their presentation, but the suit is often an exercise in restraint. In comparison to the gleam of the crown, the contemporary suit is aesthetically parsimonious. It is the stuff of clerks, industrialists, and civil servants—hardly ordained by god to govern, but apparently the market is fitting replacement. Yet, the suit—as we now know it—has its origins in Restoration-era England, a sartorial salve in an era of instability. Though some date the birth of the suit to Revolutionary France and the Romantic era that succeeded it (or Beau Brummell, anyone?), the fashion historian David Kuchta argues that the three-piece suit emerges in the late 17th century, as a means of re-articulating aristocratic power following the English Civil War. Disagreeing with the “Great Masculine Renunciation” theory, Kuchta believes that the suit “shifted elite masculinity from a regime that valued sumptuous display as the privilege of nobility to one that rejected fashion as the concern of debauched upstarts,” instead inscribing modest consumption as a public virtue. And it started with a vest. Introduced by King Charles II in 1666, the vest, per English diarist Samuel Pepys, was an attempt to “teach the nobility thrift” by introducing a style that “[they] will never alter.” Consciously unadorned, the vest meant to deflect from condemnations of English aristocratic excess made by radical reformers such as the Puritans. Per Kuchta, the vest could also be seen as a way for the English court to combat French influence by introducing a distinctly English style. Lord Halifax wrote that “[the English must] throw off [French] fashion, and put on vests, that we might look more like a distinct people, and not be under the servility of imitation.” This economic and political rivalry with France recast luxury and tyranny as distinctly “French vices” that the English imported—at their peril—through dress. As the poet Sir Thomas Overbury wrote, “vainglory, new fashions, and the French disease are upon terms of quitting their country’s allegiance, to be made free denizens of England.” Sumptuary nationalism further solidified the trend, with wool becoming England’s “manly and moral fibre.” By 1688, extravagance in dress was seen as “base effeminacy,” with a gentleman’s reputation increasingly reliant on perceptions of their public piety, which was seen through the absence of adornment.  By introducing the three-piece suit, the restoration court, according to Kuchta, “temporarily reversed the relation between power and display.” In forgoing obvious luxury, the crown regained its moral authority, and grounded it in a particular vision of masculinity—one that deliberately did away with the ornamentation of old. * English mores eventually found their way to France smuggled in the works of Enlightenment era thinkers like Voltaire. Entranced with English pragmatism, French fashion changed accordingly. It embraced English styles like the frock coat, gilet, and greatcoat, and according to the costume historian, Aileen Ribeiro, the Anglomania of the 1780s influenced French dress towards the sobriety of the black suit, a look “worn by middle class businessmen and the professional man—the lawyer, the doctor, the official—which was to become the urban dress of the nineteenth century man.” Yet, unlike the suit’s ability to unify at a time of social upheaval, Anglomania was a symptom of a society coming undone.  Another influence on the suit’s design were innovations in military dress. The uniform retrained and refit bodies and minds for combat, according to Breward in The Suit: Form, Function, and Style, “the military uniform was a potent agent of court and state control,” allowing for the expression of the staunch hierarchy of the Bourbon era state. It was a sensibility that continued throughout the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era. Drawing on the historian Daniel Roche’s comments, Breward notes that “Uniform is at the heart of military logic…when war is a necessary continuation of politics. Uniform constructs the fighting man for mortal combat. It imposes control, a source of efficiency in battle and means to social power….it creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence….uniform is central to a utopian and voluntarist vision of the social which reconciles the conflict between automatic docility ‘and the concrete economy of the individual liberty in which the autonomy of each constitutes the measure of his obedience.’ It impregnates the whole of society.” For revolutionaries in particular, English style suits became the antithesis of aristocratic opulence; the simplicity and rigorousness of its tailoring made it the perfect assertion of the new order.        Countering the tyranny of an immaculately baubled aristocracy, the suit was infused with the austere self-confidence of neoclassicism—a new masculinity. As Barbara Vinken writes in “What Fashion Strictly Divided,” the Revolution did away with the sybaritic noble, reducing their symbolic power to mere trinket, instead promoting “the citizen-man—the only real man—[who] stands in a negative relation to the world of frivolous appearance. He is. He does need to represent.” The suit was no mere uniform, it became, in Roche’s view, part of a new delineation of public space, [establishing] distances, a code of human and social relations, and it was all the more persuasive in that it developed an aesthetic.”  * On March 14th, Macron swapped Kennedy-core for purposeful schlubbiness. Emerging for the press in jeans and a black French special forces hoodie, he looked uncharacteristically casual. Instead of memes, the internet noted a curious similarity between Macron’s new look and that of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, war hero du jour. As Oleksiy Sorokin of the Kiev Independent quipped on Twitter: “A month ago it would have been hard to imagine French President Emmanuel Macron trying to copy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now it’s the reality we live in.” Compared to Zelenskyy’s man-of-the-people greens, Macron’s new look reads as army man cosplay. It’s odd that the avatar of the “Jupiterian presidency” would even deign to be perceived in sweats. Stranger still is that anyone remotely deserving of a mythological moniker would dress like a post-Gordon Geckko style corporate raider devoid of sleaze and personality. Nevertheless, he persisted. Relatability gambits will never die. Though the internet lambasted Macron’s jeans-and-a-hoodie as an attempt to copy Ukraine’s wartime leader, his look was less post-Maidan everyman, and more 2000s tech bro. A fashion revolution of a different kind, the tech bro uniform of t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and Patagonia vests implied the same Protestant impulses as the proto-suit, with a decidedly amoral twist. Uninterested in the hereafter or any particular religious statement (unless relentless optimizing and money is your god), its “dogma,” wrote Hannah Murphy in the Financial Times, is that “minimalism and monotony yield extra productivity.” Social media titan Mark Zuckerberg famously stated, regarding the monotonousness of his dress, that his intention was to “clear [his] life to make it so that [he had] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve [the Facebook] community.” He continued: “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Though he shed the suit, he never shed one of the most potent ideas behind it; that you are what you do, not what you appear to be. By relentlessly simplifying until there’s barely anything left and posturing at a kind of anti-fashion, the tech bro uniform undermines the suit’s potency, highlighting in the latter a kind of stuffy pomposity and lack of intellectual rigour. This sentiment calls to mind Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s disdain for CEOs in suits. As he wrote in Zero to One regarding how his company chooses to invest: “pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings.” It’s a similar logic that underpinned criticisms of French aristocratic fashion during the French Revolution; if you are what you say you are, contend the investor and the critic, then why are you laden down with needless accoutrements? If power in Silicon Valley derives from mental acuity and obsessiveness, slickness and attention to detail in dress suggests a lack of intellectual virility; a need to preen and pose, and a lack of attention to what really matters, vision and code. As Thiel wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.” The tech bro uniform suggests a shift in where real power lies. The symbols of the past cannot hold. Instead, power belongs to those who create and control the attention economy: tech titans, and those best placed to surf the fickle waves of the discourse. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to seem “real,” or at the very least, “disruptive.” That’s something that the likes of Zuckerberg got, and what Zelenskyy in his army greens understands. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Macron aimed for war hero and emerged instead as dweeby tech despot. Thank god he didn’t go for a vest, bulletproof, Patagonia or otherwise. After all, we’re in the midst of a social media war—where it’s as much about creating spectacle as it is combating it. So why not pay tribute to those who ultimately shape what and how we see? Why not don the guise of the new gods? Jupiter is so passé.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of MTV Books

How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?

In 1996, fifteen years after its seismic launch, American television network and cultural kingmaker MTV surprised viewers and skeptics alike with an untypical announcement: it was hosting a fiction-writing contest. Embarking on a new creative endeavour was not, in and of itself, unique to the brand. After all, MTV’s very existence was born from a brazen experiment uniting popular music, visual culture, and a brassy, free-swinging attitude. By the mid-nineties, the brand’s reach had unfurled in a variety of directions—often adjacent to music culture, but by no means focused on it—perhaps most famously those of animated programming (Beavis and Butthead, Æon Flux) and reality television (The Real World, Road Rules). But literature is a domain often regarded, however snobbishly, as antithetical to the sorts of stimulations available on MTV. What’s more, the lofty, cerebral associations of the written word did not align with the channel’s bawdy reputation. The knowingly provocative music video for Duran Duran’s 1981 single “Girls on Film” initiated what critics regarded as a catalogue of garish smut. As early as 1983, journalist Steven Levy described MTV in a Rolling Stone cover story as “the ultimate junk culture triumph.” The channel won a Peabody Award for its 1992 “Choose or Lose” programming, which sought to mobilize young voters, and succeeded in its aim—at MTV’s inaugural ball, newly elected president Bill Clinton declared, “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton–Gore victory.” Still, the channel’s efforts to achieve something so serious as heightened political awareness were widely lampooned. But MTV did not cower before mockery. And though its faltering start augured an uncertain future, the brand’s imprint, MTV Books, ultimately captured the hearts of its target audience of elder millennials who kept their dog-eared copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower close and lovingly at hand. I was among them. A fickle fan of MTV’s television programming, I wondered whether MTV Books could offer me the nourishment I only occasionally found in the channel’s prodigiously splashy media. It did. And, in so doing, it secured my allegiance to that hell-raising colossus that loomed at the back of my generation. MTV Books was the MTV I wanted. *** Together with its cosponsor, Pocket Books—the entity through which MTV would found its own literary imprint—the music entertainment behemoth solicited entries for “The Write Stuff” from aspiring, yet heretofore unknown, writers. The contest winner would sign the inaugural MTV Books contract, launch the imprint with their debut novel, and reap a $5,000 advance in the process. In the twenty-first century, these spoils might seem meagre, even exploitative, but a book contract, especially one tethered to such mighty commercial influence, is a seductive prospect for any labouring writer. So too is fame—and this MTV intimately understood. To qualify, “The Write Stuff” entrants were required to submit three chapters from a work in progress and be under the age of twenty-four. The latter stipulation accommodated the brand’s glorifying emphasis on youth and youth’s weightiest and most cutting-edge preoccupations. In other words, MTV was in the market for prose that aligned with its programming, so predominantly focused on the tangled, horny sociality of kids coming of age in the nineties, like the contestants on Road Rules or, when the animated sitcom premiered in 1997, Daria. Maybe the characters of a future MTV Books title watched MTV—if they had cable television, that is—or maybe they thought MTV was garbage. Regardless, targeting teens and early twenty-somethings made it more likely that the submitted manuscripts would express the current milieu. But whether due to lack of access or disinclination, the so-called “MTV Generation” hesitated to participate; at first, turnout for the “The Write Stuff” languished at two hundred entries. As the deadline neared, the New York Times ran a short article about the contest which noted, with mild derision, the shallow pool of manuscripts. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every misunderstood youth must be in want of a publisher. Or is it?” the piece asks, as if with eyebrows raised. Then-MTV executive Van Toffler expressed a similarly detached bemusement. “Apparently they’re taking their time,” he told the Times. “There’s no denying it. Literature is not the most popular art form with our audience.” The adolescents and young adults of the mid-nineties—the audience in question—had long been maligned with the rest of Generation X as inert and intellectually disengaged. Writes Jonathon I. Oake in his 2004 article “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” “Thus, the deviance of Xer subculture lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing’. . . Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict.” The prevailing assumption—accurate or not—was that young, would-be literary stars were too busy watching MTV to pick up a pen. Tepid press is press nonetheless. Despite its brevity, and its equivocations, the Times write-up must have roused interest in MTV’s new venture. Ultimately, “The Write Stuff” yielded over five hundred manuscripts, and Robin Troy, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was named the winner. Connecticut-raised Troy’s debut novel, Floating, imagines a dinky, dusty town in Arizona where its comely protagonist, Ruby, falls in love with her husband’s estranged, cowboy brother. One might imagine it adapted for late night on The WB, after Dawson’s Creek, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Skeet Ulrich smoldering against a sunset. Surely MTV Books hoped, as any imprint would, that its first title would be met with a warm reception. But when Floating was published in October 1998, it and, by extension, MTV Books, inspired brittle critique. “One of the differences between cake recipes and novels is the greater likelihood of actually getting a decent recipe from a contest,” begins Kirkus’s trade review. Individual critics were similarly grim. “If this is the future of fiction, bring on the music videos,” writes Patrick Sullivan for the Sonoma County Independent. Sullivan’s review, devastating in its sneering dismissal of Troy’s book, also insinuates that MTV’s primary cultural contributions are too feeble to portend the brand’s success in the intellectually elevated domain of book publishing. In fact, he likens Floating to a music video, referring to it as “its literary equivalent . . . full of quick cuts and perspective changes.” Whatever its accuracy, this comparison heaves with the weight of MTV’s spotted reputation, one that largely turned on the critical response to their music videos. As early as 1984, video director John Scarlett-Davis belittled the channel’s main fare as “masturbation fantasies for middle America.” Many agreed with his assessment and claimed to be repulsed by the videos’ reliance on sexed-up, scantily clad women and the broadcasting of so-called loose morals. In 1998, MTV’s viewers thirsted for replays of Brandy and Monica’s music video for their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” and teenyboppers panted after a glimpse of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys as they hopped and thrusted through their choreography—but as is so often the case, this searing popularity did not coincide with highbrow assignation. If Floating’s structural template was an MTV music video, it was doomed to sink. Yet Troy is not to blame for this fumbled literary entrée, insists the Kirkus reviewer, who nonetheless sinks their teeth into the book and leaves puncture wounds. Rather, it is MTV Books who is responsible for sending “this novel-like object” into the world and perhaps “[devastating] any ambition [Troy] might have had.” By sharing her debut with that of the MTV Books imprint, Troy shouldered a prodigious burden. Implicit in Sullivan’s review is the belief that MTV had trespassed into territory beyond its expertise, dabbling wantonly where more robust powers of creative discernment were required. As the first expression of this breach, Troy’s work was bound to attract skeptical scrutiny—when, indeed, it garnered notice at all (Floating, like so many other books written for young readers, did not receive much critical attention). The shortcomings of any novel can be wielded as evidence of larger lamentable trends; this sort of intellectual synthesis is an expected function of literary criticism. If Floating was regarded as the crude effort of an undeveloped writer, it doubled as a symptom of MTV’s thought-annihilating influence on literature. In Sullivan’s estimation, MTV Books was not so much committed to telling stories as it was concerned with perpetuating its brand aesthetic. “As a physical object, Floating seems designed to provoke the same reaction as a stuffed animal (or a Backstreet Boy),” he writes. “The book is little, it’s funky looking, but most of all, it’s terribly cute. The chapters are all roughly ten pages long (just about right for perusal during a lengthy commercial interruption).” Rather than existing for its own sake—for the sake of a narrative, and for the possibilities exclusive to writerly craft—Floating seemed designed to complement MTV’s programming. Perhaps MTV earnestly hoped to encourage the habit of reading, so long as the practice did not infringe upon its raison d’être, that is to say, televised programming. But how much influence did MTV expect to brandish when it came to young readers’ literary interests? The success or failure of one book cannot predict the life trajectory of an imprint. If Floating’s prickly reception was not auspicious, surely it did not indicate doom, or anything else, for that matter. Readerly attention is finicky; so is the ebb and flow of cultural preoccupations. As a result, meteoric success eludes most published books, whatever their flaws or strengths. Floating might have been more elegantly crafted—and it might not have mattered. *** Then, on February 1, 1999, MTV Books published The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slender, epistolary novel by debut novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Chbosky. And whether due to the narrative’s easy resonance with many among the MTV viewer set—the main characters are white, suburban high school students—the intimacy of its language, or some unquantifiable alchemy, it was a hit. To date, Perks is MTV Books’s best-selling title, and the most recognizable of the imprint’s nearly forty novels and short fiction collections. Rapid, fervent popularity amongst teenage readers fostered robust circulation; by October 2000, MTV Books was printing Perks’ hundred-thousandth copy. And twinned rivulets of momentum, cult readership and educator enthusiasm, solidified the book’s material success: after the production of a high-profile film adaptation in 2012 and a stint atop the New York Times bestseller list, the title is ubiquitous. Even without the confidence of hindsight, this commercial success would come as no surprise.  Perks emerges from MTV’s crowd of early aughts literature as an eager shepherd, scouting out its flock of pubescent misfits: the guileless, the preemptively jaded, and the rest of us wobbling from one emotional pole to the other. The 2012 film adaptation, written and directed by Chbosky, cemented the book’s stature as a darling among contemporary bildungsromans, although initially, critics did not receive it with unanimous enthusiasm. In fact, Perks’ trade reviews weren’t much better than those lobbed at Floating. Kirkus called it a Salinger “rip-off,” and Publisher’s Weekly accused it of being “trite.” Then again, the sort of reader who finds Perks “trite” might prefer the irritable machismo of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An epistolary novel is structured by the pursuit of human connection, and in the case of Perks, the gesture is unvarnished in its earnest, almost puppyish, hopefulness. Chbosky’s narrator, Charlie, writes to his unnamed recipient—someone he has never met, but has reason to think well of—just as he trepidatiously begins freshman year of high school. Charlie’s only friend has recently died by suicide, and his own experiences of trauma and mental illness are growing evermore unwieldy. He is befriended by two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick. But as Charlie sinks into the novel joy of these intimacies, his determination to be an attentive and loving friend churns with a twinned, subterranean urge for self-obliteration. As a character, Charlie is emotionally generous, but he also prefers not to think about himself, and to instead commit to passive observation (he is, of course, the titular wallflower). However, this is a coming-of-age novel, and so all that Charlie carefully avoids, he must ultimately confront. As an adult, I find the novel warm and, at times, rather effortful. At sixteen, I thought it was a perfect triumph—and that, perhaps, is the appraisal that matters more. When teenage me encountered Charlie’s now-famous pronouncement, “I feel infinite,” the words hummed, carrying me to the lip of synesthesia. I received this expression of tranquil, comradely bliss—vague, yet invitingly capacious—as both revelation and yen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, in my adolescent estimation, the Rosetta Stone of teenage angst, the Key to All Adolescent Mythologies. And, as its issuer, MTV Books had distinguished itself as a purveyor of unabashed truth. Charlie’s journey towards self-understanding, strewn as it is with romantic missteps, hallucinogens, and live Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, plausibly coincides with MTV’s carefully cultivated brashness, but his wide-eyed earnestness might, at first, seem at odds with the acerbic cool so central to the brand. Then again, perhaps MTV Books was heeding the zeitgeist’s elevation of things red-heartedly sincere. For, although the nineties are canonically understood in terms of disaffection, many sought respite in softer territory. James Cameron’s Titanic, exultantly melodramatic, debuted in 1997 to near immediate, orgiastic obsession and cleaned up at the following Academy Awards. Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster’s suitably extravagant love theme, was inescapable, practically atmospheric. The Billboard Top 100 was flush with similarly impassioned declarations: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight;” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply;” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” In the meantime, America gawked at the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton’s pungently insincere sex life and the simultaneously public excoriation of Monica Lewinsky: dismal proceedings which perhaps inspired us to scout out sweeter expressions of humanity. With Perks, MTV Books sauntered nearby, pairing coming-of-age sensitivity with of-the-moment stylishness. *** It would have made sense if, after finishing Perks, I had scouted out more of Chbosky’s work. Once besotted with a literary work, this tends to be a reader’s next move: investigate the author’s back catalogue and nurture a bit of fandom. Granted, Chbosky was a relative newcomer, and in fact, he didn’t publish a second novel until 2019, twenty years after his first (this follow-up, Imaginary Friend, was published by Grand Central Publishing, not MTV Books). In 2002, the results of any research would have been lean. But I confess that I did not seek out more of his writing. Instead, I meandered the aisles of Barnes & Noble in pursuit of more titles from MTV Books, the entity that had delivered Perks’s keen fluorescence into the world. This was the first literary imprint I had ever recognized as such. And although I lacked understanding of the logistics, I was receptive to the whispers of its branding. Surely my response was no coincidence. In an interview with Variety’s Jonathan Bing, Kara Welsh, then-deputy publisher of Pocket Books, explained that Perks’s success derived partially from the imprint’s kinship with MTV. “It’s a coming-of-age story aimed right at the MTV audience,” she noted. Bing then emphasized the prodigious advertising potential generated by such porous boundaries. “MTV produced an on-air spot for the book,” he explained, “a marketing coup enjoyed by few novels, especially first novels by little-known writers.” Implicit in these remarks by Welsh and Bing is the potency of the MTV trademark and its enticing associations of stylish audacity and cultural relevance. *** The guiding principle of any brand is this: be distinct, visible, and seductive. The MTV of the early aughts achieved this end. Still unimpeded by Napster and the gradual digitization of music, it reigned as the chaotic angel of entertainment. Its logo was—and still is—unmistakable: the solid loom of the “M” pressed against that hurried, inky dash, “TV.” Every weekday, Total Request Live (TRL) commingled the anticipation of a top-ten countdown with the tomfoolery of celebrity guests. And thanks to the exposure of MTV’s Time Square studio, it whipped Midtown Manhattan into an ecstatic frenzy. The MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s answer to the Grammys, offered more feral pageantry and commitment to shock. When, in 2001, Britney Spears strutted across stage with the thick rope of an albino snake draped across her shoulders, viewers spoke of little else. I can’t recall whether I watched Britney’s performance on the night that it aired; my television privileges were spare and strictly monitored. But as an elder millennial living in suburban Virginia, I harboured an abiding influence in MTV’s programming events, like The MTV Video Music Awards, or a thrilling celebrity guest appearance on TRL. If I was home alone, I would turn on the channel in search of boy bands and Daria reruns. And if the programming ever seemed crass, absurd, or try-hard, well, I was captive nonetheless. MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on American music television (with the exception of its more benign sister channel, VH1). If one wanted to hear the buzziest hits, and if the radio felt too unpredictably curated or one-dimensional, MTV prevailed as a brash sensory playground. Of course, my peers and I complained about its provisions. The music was redundant and vanishingly deprioritized; Carson Daly presided over TRL like an amiable automaton set to power-save. And by the early aughts, happening upon a spate of music videos felt as rare as a sighting of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the same room. As Amanda Ann Klein writes in Millennials Killed the Video Star, MTV gradually supplanted music videos with reality shows like Laguna Beach and Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Market research suggested that “millennials wanted to be a part of the media they consumed.” If this was my generation’s majority opinion, then I heartily dissented. Above all else, I chased the music video’s walloping glut of sound and fleeting images. And despite increasingly paltry offerings, I continued to watch. For a cloistered high school junior, MTV—even this diminished iteration of it—signified worldliness. Its programming instructed me in how to be young and how to pretend I enjoyed it. MTV Books piqued my interest because they had published Perks, but my curiosity was amplified by their affiliation with this popular culture juggernaut whose material endorsements guided my hand and my babysitting cash. For despite my quibbles with their early aughts lineup, I loved MTV. My musical tastes were sufficiently omnivorous to be satisfied by TRL; I knew that Tori Amos and Smashing Pumpkins weren’t likely to gain airplay, but Shakira and Britney Spears would. When, in 2000, MTV broadcasted their first feature-length film, 2gether—a satirical rendering of the boy band phenomenon perpetuated by the channel—it was an urgent cinematic affair. And although I doubted that Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane would have given me the time of day, I admired the animated series as the epitome of perspicacious wit. Surely, then, an MTV literary venture would unite good storytelling with a youthful, uniquely de nos jours attitude. Perks bore out this hypothesis, and so I was motivated to follow the thread. Over the years, I had consumed a healthy dose of young adult literature; although, in 2002, that taxonomy was not so ubiquitous, at least not among my peers. (Yet American librarians have been referring to adolescents as “young adults” since the 1940s, and the term “YA literature” has long been in circulation.) There was no shortage of decent—albeit homogenous—writing for and about adolescents when MTV Books launched in 1998. And while I treated my copy of Perks with attentive ardour, it had never previously felt necessary to read about modern life in order to locate emotional or dispositional familiarity. Why had MTV Books turned my head? At the risk of ellipticity—because MTV turned heads. The allure of MTV Books was always, to some extent, aesthetic. And it’s not surprising that an imprint with MTV’s influential heft would understand the craft of packaging. As their name suggests, Pocket Books creates mass-market paperbacks, soft and easily tucked in a coat. MTV Books’ offerings were designed according to this model, and in the years following the imprint’s launch, they manifested a reliable artistic calling card: candid, lowercase typeface, thick monochromatic blocks, and scraps of imagery loosely relevant to the narrative. They were “perfect for sliding into your messenger bag clad with pins and patches,” recounts one of my high school classmates, a fellow elder millennial. Any book can be wielded as an accessory, but MTV’s paperbacks complemented a particular look, one that was punky and chic. And for someone like me, hapless in her polo shirts and humdrum shoes, they supplied an air of subversion. The irony of this—brandishing slickly designed, commercial paperbacks to adopt a more alternative posture—sailed over my tidy, pony-tailed head. Teenage rebel I decidedly was not; subversion only interested me if I could practice it in good company. MTV seemed to assure me that I was. Although its fiction traded in misfits—Perks’s Charlie, Brave New Girl’s Doreen, the titular Fuck-Up—MTV Books was offering its alienated readers a means of fitting in. What a heady, beguiling paradox: come as you are, and you can be like us. I was addicted to the possibility of belonging and resonance, particularly when it was stained with rebellious aspirations. Relatability is more pleasant when it rhymes with validation, when the person on the page reminds us of ourselves, if only we were more audacious or capable of poignancy at the most cinematic moments. Hungry for that poignancy, we lonely millennial readers chased the unruly narrators of MTV Books. Narrators who listened to The Smiths and The Pixies, who wielded “fuck” with confidence, and who pontificated self-seriously the way we did on LiveJournal. Narrators who were existentially stymied and frustrated and bewildered by eros. Narrators who were emotionally bruised, who had survived traumas that, perhaps, vibrated in time with our own. Narrators who were love-voracious yet flinty, who bore shields of self-sabotage and well-whetted wit. In return, MTV Books hailed us, offering itself as both the drug and the dealer. *** In recent years, MTV Books has abided, at least publicly, in a quiet lull, without marketing razzle-dazzle or new releases. The imprint’s most recent output was a hardcover edition of Perks commemorating its twentieth anniversary, released in September 2019. We may, however, be at the lip of an MTV Books renaissance. In January 2021, various literary media outlets broadcast the imprint’s imminent “relaunch,” to be helmed by industry veteran Christian Trimmer. I confess, I am skeptical. In a cultural milieu brimming with screen-based diversions, how can the brand wield even a portion of its early-aughts might? Does Generation Z want their MTV just as its predecessors did? With the glut of accessible digital media, I’m inclined to say no. What’s more, in a marketplace now flush with YA literature, and so many authors, both seasoned and debut, triumphing within the genre, I wonder how this new iteration of the MTV Books imprint will distinguish itself, tethered as it is to a diminished pop culture giant, a relic of a society oriented towards cable television instead of YouTube and Instagram and TikTok. *** I discovered MTV Books nearly two decades ago, when my peers and I stood unknowingly at the cusp of a great digital onslaught. But for the time being, we wandered mall food courts and Blockbusters without the truss of a cell phone, and internet activity was oriented around winking AIM chat boxes and legally dubious mp3 downloads. Dawdling in Barnes & Noble served as another reliable pastime for a bookish teenage girl too callow for parties or heavy petting. My best friend and I would station ourselves there on Friday nights, drawn to the sugary scented hodgepodge of the café’s Starbucks coffee and baked goods and the ready supply of magazines—Cosmopolitan, Glamour, NYLON—which I preferred to read at a distance from my father’s skeptical gaze. But we would also roam the aisles of books, announcing themselves like so many slick, bound promises of intellectual sophistication and worldliness. One evening, mid-meander, no doubt riding the rush of a cinnamon bun the size of my face, I spotted the MTV books; they were housed together, like a serial—The Baby-Sitter’s Club, if Kristy, Mary Anne, and Stacey were soused in cigarette smoke and sexual longing. The early aughts marketing does register as libidinous: it flirts, tosses its hair, and urges starry-eyed obsession. “Like this is the only one,” razzes a bulletin at the back of one paperback, before listing the rest of the imprint’s catalogue. “Don’t even pretend you won’t read more,” teases another. And to be fair, they had my number. After finishing Perks, I seized upon Louisa Luna’s 2001 novel, Brave New Girl, highlighter in hand. I visited Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up (1999) on intermittent bookstore visits, eyeing it like a shy girl at the high school dance. I didn’t dare bring it home. Yes, my parents would have reeled at a book entitled The Fuck-Up, but perhaps I was shrinking from an agitating boundary. Did I trust myself with such provocations? “I don’t feel like putting on MTV because all they play is trash,” narrates Luna’s protagonist, the fourteen-year-old Doreen. Another provocation, lobbed casually, and presumably at the author’s discretion. And yet its placement seems almost fastidious, as if the result of a pointed conversation. MTV hovers like a paternal spectre, insistent on performative accommodation. “We can take Luna’s joke,” they seem to say. “See? Look at us, taking it.” When I read that line as a girl, I was thunderstruck, even though I understood that this broad-swathed disdain suited Doreen’s character. She likes what she likes (The Pixies and Ted, her only friend) and is unimpressed by the solicitations of mainstream culture. I may have recognized that a behemoth like MTV could tolerate mild ribbing, that the suits in the room harboured no illusions about their motives or their product. Still, it unmoored me, this recognition of permissibility. Louisa Luna could lampoon MTV in a book they championed. But of course, this cheeky line was hegemonically sanctioned. Rebellion in MTV Books rarely takes too outlandish a shape, and it predominantly manifests in white, middle-class, able-bodied characters who are inevitably more attractive than they perceive themselves to be. Beck, of Rachel Solar-Tuttle’s 2002 novel, Number 6 Fumbles, self-medicates with booze and the company of frat boys, but still dazzles her UPenn professors with papers dashed off at the eleventh hour. In Fake Liar Cheat (2000), Tod Goldberg situates his everyman protagonist, Lonnie, in a bourgeois variation of Bonnie and Clyde—note the rhyme—but events devolve into such outlandish tumult that the narrative reads not so much as an anti-consumerist critique, but rather as the noirish wet dream of an aggrieved office drudge. Alongside Claire, a comely, chameleonic femme fatale, Lonnie frequents glitzy Los Angeles restaurants, dining and then dashing without paying the bill. When, eventually, his sneaky accomplice frames him for murder, there’s little surprise. At base, Fake Liar Cheat is a nihilistic tale for young men who want to have sex with beautiful women and then blame them for ruining their lives. Like Goldberg’s Lonnie, the unnamed narrator of The Fuck-Up nurtures a diffusive, hyper-masculine dissatisfaction that propels his undoing. He flings himself through 1980s New York City, seemingly hell-bent on bludgeoning his life, but his every predicament arrives after limpidly evident bad choices. Ultimately, he is offered salvation and takes it. MTV Books chronicled all manner of suffering in the early aughts, most of it cruel and undeserved. It was also the suffering of the systemically blessed. Despite the exploits within, these are primly woven stories that deliver snug denouements, implicitly rendering the characters’ subversions controlled and validated, their hardships, if not easily solved, then at least socially legible. Perhaps we ought not be surprised: their packaging—audacious and distinctive yet streamlined and contained—seems to promise these tidy, digestible rebellions. And for MTV Books’ target readership, so vastly dominated by white, upper- and middle-class school kids, this was a digestible, satisfying dosage. Donning the solipsistic lenses of coddled adolescence, resonance and familiarity can easily masquerade as literary virtuosity. A trendy book cover might look like an invitation to a new home, one that feels safer and intrinsically true. At the start of The Fuck-Up, Nersesian’s narrator—comfortably separated from the novel’s sordid events—briefly appraises the circumstances of his domestic harmony. “Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film,” he recounts. The vicissitudes of a placid adulthood: a dinner that tastes good, but not great; a film that entertains but doesn’t transport. This sort of mundanity might send you searching for Charlie’s beatific infinitude—searching, perhaps, in a rowdy little paperback whose logo promises wild delights. And when you’re sixteen and full of ache, you’ll believe in them.
The Loneliest Man in the World

Watching Irrfan Khan over the years

A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say. Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us. There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing. Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene. *** The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again. From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset. I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break. I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project. Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again. *** Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.” His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house. In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.” Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film.   Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking. He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain. I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses. Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on. The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat. *** I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed. When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face.     The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan. By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen. Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads. In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work. Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments. On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find. *** What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him. Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up. The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.” In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance.  ***                             Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.” It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?” Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night. *** “You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives. I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us. *** The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence. Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state. I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi.             After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage. Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.
Central Park During the Pandemic

“If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany.”

When the coronavirus came to New York City, I began spending more time in Central Park. For much of 2020, it was one of the few places to escape the sound of sirens, safely unmask, and inhale the scent of a hyacinth rather than your own halitosis. That patch of Manhattan, between 59th and 110th Streets and Fifth Avenue and the Avenue once known as Eighth (now Central Park West), has always felt sort of miraculous. The fact that you can be in the dizzying tumult of midtown one moment, and then suddenly lying in Kentucky bluegrass with your shoes and socks off, or gazing at a Great Egret gliding across a pond, is wondrously absurd. 18,000 trees. 843 acres. 2,373 squirrels, according to the last census. Its creators called it “the lungs of the city.” It’s also been described as a “synthetic Arcadian carpet grafted onto the grid” (Rem Koolhaas), an “Eden for everyone” (Cynthia S. Brenwall) and “#3 of 1,291 things to do in New York City” (TripAdvisor.com). During the Pandemic, the place has not only felt lovelier, but more necessary than ever. I’ll also say what everyone’s been thinking: It was especially nice without the tourists. When the pandemic hit, armed with a trusty foldable map, itself larger than many actual urban parks, I began treating Central Park as an actual destination. For the first time in eight years, I took a proper look at the carvings in the New Brunswick sandstone at Bethesda Terrace, the cast-iron filigree of the Ladies’ Pavilion, the mortarless cyclopean stones of Huddlestone Arch. I noticed the 500,000-year-old mounds of bedrock that punctuate the park, and admired the chalky-handed boulderers who have a different name for every climbing route (the Polish Traverse, Nipple Twist, Smack the Dragon). When concert halls shuttered, I realized that the Park is the most exquisitely diverse live music venue in the city. On any given day, you might hear “Moon River” on ehru, or an aria from Carmen reverberating off the tile ceiling of the Bethesda Arcade, or some white dude playing “No Scrubs” on keyboard. I include the pitchy clanging of the Delacorte Clock’s seasonal playlist in this too. Plus, nearly everywhere you go, the sweet sound of sax. One saxophonist, calling himself Young Nomadic, told me in between songs that he aspired to create a suitable “soundtrack to paradise.” I’ve become better acquainted with the Park’s wildly diverse array of sculptures, from the characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, polished by sixty years’ worth of clambering little palms, to King Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, looking like he’s about to gallop maniacally off his plinth straight into Turtle Pond. I must have perused every plaque inscription on every one of the Park’s 9,000 benches (a quote from Kung Fu Panda, on a bench in the Ramble, is a favorite) and, though I haven’t yet sampled from the Park’s veritable smorgasbord of foragable herbs, greens, nuts, berries and mushrooms, I still might. All the while, I began to grasp the enormity of the work of the Central Park Conservancy, who plant tens of thousands of flowers a year, weed, hedge, prune, mow, till and irrigate, not to mention perform a terrific range of non-horticultural jobs, like maintaining the regulation pitching mounds in the North Meadow Ballfields, or stabilizing the Park’s 193-ton granite obelisk from ancient Egypt. During the pandemic, the essential work of caring for the Park simply carried on. In an otherwise intensely confined and claustrophobic time, I especially appreciated the Ramble, the 36-acre simulacrum of an upstate forest, a kind of Disney World Adirondacks. It is the Park’s most eloquent riposte to urbanity: a place of nonlinearity, mystery, discovery. Sure, you can navigate with the help of street-referencing digits inscribed on the lampposts (whose luminaires, by the way, were redesigned in the 1980s to be “a kind of botanical event”). Or you can get pleasantly, wonderfully lost. (Incidentally, the Disney analogy holds up, in the way that the transverse roads and operations buildings are “planted” out of view, and the way those strolling the Mall in the 19th century could also glimpse Belvedere Castle in the distance, made to look farther away with Disneyland-esque optical tricks.) Most profoundly of all, I feel like I finally understood the Park as a designed work of participatory art and artifice, a scripted experience with the visitor as the protagonist. I became aware of the way, upon entering the Park, the visitor is often coaxed away from glass and steel to grass and sky with a shift in topography. Wander those meandering pedestrian pathways, and you realize the Park’s designers, working in 1858, were intentionally creating an enchanting kingdom of chlorophyll as an antidote to the stultifying rigidity of the Manhattan grid. “If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany and the labyrinthine design,” tour guide Speed Levitch told me. “It’s as if the designers of the park are saying, ‘You're not getting out of here without convening with nature. You will convene!’” * It’s fitting that the fountain at the very heart of Central Park is a symbol of healing. Since 1873, the Angel of the Waters has stood on her fountain-top perch looking over Bethesda Terrace, beckoningly visible from the promenade of the Mall. From the positioning of her feet and the upsweep of her dress, it looks as if she has just landed there. Her arm is outstretched, her palm downward, a beneficent gesture that seems to say: “Chill out, my dudes.” Originally, the Angel referred to the rejuvenating qualities of water conveyed to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. But it’s easy to see her as a more general representation of the Park and its soul-soothing powers. (Pigeon-repelling spikes on the Angel’s mighty wings undercut the beatific vibe a bit, but on the other hand: badass.) Central Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, envisioned the Park as a respite from the increasingly crowded city. Olmsted wrote, with a sometime journalist’s penchant for alliteration, on the need for relief from the “cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town,” promising a “specimen of God’s handiwork” for New Yorkers who couldn’t easily take a trip up north to actual nature. Originally, the land did not look destined to become an idyllic pleasure ground. The Ramble was an unpromising pile of rocks. The Mall was quicksand. There were bone-boiling works for the recycling of animal carcasses on the west side, and even the pigs in the area, it was noted, were gaunt. “The stench,” Olmsted noted, “was sickening.” For 15 years, a small army of workers wrestled with around 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth, laid down more than 40,000 cubic yards of fertilizer, and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. The land’s rocky outcrops were sculpted into grassy knolls, and topographical depressions were transformed into tranquil lakes. When you think of Central Park as an elaborate artifice, its outsize ambition starts to feel as egomaniacal as New York’s soaring skyline. No nature? No problem! We’ll make our own. The gently cascading waterfall in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, to pick one example, emanates from a valve hidden among artfully placed rocks, having traveled through miles of buried pipes—and gets switched off, as unceremoniously and easily as a bathroom faucet, in the winter. * Long before 2020 turned it into a pandemic catch phrase, “We’re all in this together” was already the implicit message of Central Park. Olmsted wrote proudly of parkgoers’ “evident glee at the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose … each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each … poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.” Vaux fantasized about the Park not even having walls. Unfortunately, there are walls, and the problems of the wider world, and America, don’t just stop politely at them. In 2020, in the Ramble, a white woman threatened to call the police on a Black birder after he asked her, as per Park rules, to leash her dog. It was an awful thing, made even more appalling because it occurred in Central Park, where today’s New Yorkers go to escape this kind of interpersonal friction. Historically, incidents in the Park tend to be over-reported by the media. “It shocks people,” as a park police precinct captain explained more than half a century ago, “like crime in heaven.” But there’s plenty of darkness in the annals of Central Park’s history. Of course, the park is psychically linked with the Central Park Five case, the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. Until very recently, a statue of Doctor J. Marion Sims—who performed gynecological exams on 12 enslaved women without anesthesia—stood on the Park’s perimeter. And, for all of Olmsted and Vaux’s democratic aspirations, the acquisition of land for Central Park involved the displacement of the people of Seneca Village, a community primarily made up of African American property owners. The Central Park Conservancy has worked, with the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, to uncover and display the stories of these displaced people in that section of the Park. Doctor Sims is no more. (In 2020, #BlackLivesMatter protesters streamed past the now-empty spot.) Similarly, this January, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by two nameless African and Native American men, was removed from outside the American Museum of Natural History, across from the Park. These are welcome healing gestures, comforting in their symbolism. But the humane spirit of Central Park is on display year-round. You simply have to pay a visit on a pleasant day, and drink up the sight of New Yorkers enjoying literal common ground with other New Yorkers. This is the real attraction of the place. The catch-and-release fishing, sailboat-racing and snowman-building; the basketballers shooting hoops, archers shooting arrows and dancers shooting TikTok content. Joggers circling the billion-gallon Reservoir, cyclists hurtling around the bike track CONVERSING VERY LOUDLY, Instagram influencers doing whatever it is they do. The birders, moving in flocks, in silent pursuit of the latest celebrity bird, and Beatles singalongs at the teardrop-shaped parcel of land called Strawberry Fields. (Let’s be thankful it’s a Beatle who gets a memorial in Central Park, and not, say, a member of Bachman Turner Overdrive.) And all the parkgoers strolling the elm-lined cathedral nave of the Mall where parkgoers have strolled for 150 years, where youngsters once enjoyed goat-and-cart rides and where future generations will, I guess, zip along on hoverboards. A lot of my knowledge of the Park was absorbed from the “parkies,” like Birding Bob, whose ornithological email updates I receive every couple of days; “Wild Man” Steve Brill, who was once arrested in the Park for eating a dandelion; and Janet Ruttenberg, who has been painting Sheep Meadow for twenty years with a paintbrush the size of a broom, drawn to that spot, she told me, by the “humanity.” On any given walk, I’ll be politely asked to take a photo, invited for a game of chess, or offered a free hamster (I declined). So, sure, Central Park is an escape from the city. But, at its best, and even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a thrilling and vibrant part of the city too. This was surely what E.B. White was getting at in Here is New York, in which he writes of the “magical occasion” of an evening on the Mall, lovers on a bench “swathed in music,” strollers and popsicles, breeze-ballooned skirts and bare shoulders. Frankly, Matthew Perry puts it more succinctly in Fools Rush In. “Stay here long enough,” he says, “and the whole city walks by.” Right now, crocuses and daffodils are emerging from the soil, turtles are clambering onto rocks to get some sun, and the Ramble is a veritable Grand Central Terminal of avian passers-through on the Atlantic Flyway. Before long, the first buds of the Yoshino cherries will blossom, the boats (and that one gondola) will venture back out onto the Lake, and thesps will be treading the boards of the Delacorte Theatre in the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It (“tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones”).’’  Sitting in the shade of a tree planted 150 years ago, I’m reminded how the very existence of the Park was an act of generosity and optimism for the future. That the forward-looking New Yorkers conceived of it fundamentally as a gift to… well, us. When it seems that all is lost, I feel lucky to make the most of that gift, and grateful for a part of the city that does everything it can to remind you that life is beautiful, and will go on. Unfortunately, the tourists are truly back now, but I guess you take the good with the bad.
‘It’s Important to Know That People Live’: An Interview with Harriet Alida Lye

The author of Natural Killer on surviving cancer, parenthood, and the “sick girl novel” genre.

In the spring of 2002, Harriet Alida Lye came down with what she describes as "a bad cold that never properly went away." A few visits to the doctor’s office turned into a trip to the emergency room turned into an extended stay in SickKids hospital as Harriet, then only fifteen, was diagnosed with a form of leukemia referred to as “natural killer.” It was a cancer with an average survival time of fifty-eight days, with no known survivors.  I met Lye in 2015, when we were both volunteering at a story writing workshop for children. We followed each other on social media and saw each other at literary events, and I came to know her as a bright and pleasant person who wrote lovely essays on Paris  and was working on a novel about a honey farm. It became easy to project my own ideas onto her life, as it often is with people you casually know and genuinely admire. Reading Natural Killer (McClelland & Stewart), Lye’s memoir of her illness, meant exploding open whatever preconceived notions I had unwittingly brought along with me. The book is many things: a horror story about being betrayed by one’s own body, a treatise on making sense of the senseless through art, a love [letter?] to the author’s relentlessly loving parents. It’s a collage, made up with excerpts from journals that Lye’s parents kept during the year she spent in the hospital, as well as medical records and her own diaries. ‘When things aren’t serious, people can take an indulgent, almost shameful pleasure in experiencing pain,’ she writes astutely, about packing a suitcase to go to the hospital for the first time. ‘When things are serious, there’s no time or room for the fabrication of feeling.’ The book is also a memoir of motherhood, as Lye’s teenage experiences are interspersed with an unplanned pregnancy at thirty; unplanned, mostly because she was told that her intense chemotherapy would leave her unable to conceive. Natural Killer is a book that will give those already familiar with Lye’s writing insight into the experiences that shaped how she moves through the world. It will give newcomers to her work the feeling that they’ve known her for years. A note on the timeline: We had originally planned to conduct this interview in person when the book was first scheduled to come out in April 2020; these plans were delayed for reasons that are probably obvious. The book release was pushed to late December, and we spoke in early 2021 over Zoom. It wasn’t under the most ideal conditions; I had been temporarily living with family, and instead of my usual trusty recorder, I was using an app on my phone to record our conversation. An automatic iOS update rendered the app incompatible; all my recordings were lost, tears were shed, and I gave up hope of ever recovering the audio file until a recent iCloud miracle brought it back into my life. My deepest apologies to Lye for the delay, though I hope you will agree her insights are timeless.   Anna Fitzpatrick: Your book was originally supposed to come out in April 2020, and it was pushed to December 29, 2021 because of COVID-19. What was it like spending most of last year on the verge of having a really vulnerable book about to come out? Harriet Alida Lye: I think I kind of forgot that it hadn’t come out.  When I would remember that it was still coming out, I would think, "Oh, I do have some things still to look forward to." I had hope that it would have a better life in being delayed. Even though the world is on fire, perhaps even more so now, I think in April people still had such little bandwidth, and the publishing industry was still figuring out how to pivot. I’m glad it didn’t come out into that world.   It really did shift my year. I was thinking that it would come out in April and that I’d go on tours and go to festivals in the summer, and in the fall, we were going to put [my son] Arlo in day care and I could start working on a new book, but I just didn’t feel like I could have closure on Natural Killer until it really came out.   Given the subject matter and how much the world changed in 2020, has that altered how you anticipated the book’s response? In that it’s a book about dealing with illness and experiencing a huge shift in the day-to-day sense of living. Yeah. I feel like my time in the hospital—but also my time as a parent of a young child on maternity leave—prepared me for a radical shift in my day-to-day experience. And I think that now so many other people know what it’s like to have your daily routine and your daily life completely changed for reasons outside of your control, even if that’s not from their own personal reasons but rather imposed externally by the world. And so, I think that there might be a resonance for people with this inward-looking time of isolation. In the hospital, I was literally in isolation for so much of the time and paranoid about catching germs from people. I carried Purell everywhere and wouldn’t let people touch me. So, I think that there are echoes now that there wouldn’t have been before.  In writing the book, you drew on the journals your parents kept, old documents, a forum that your cousin set up. But you also write about your attempts to fictionalize your experiences, and reference early versions of a novel. When did you decide to make the switch to nonfiction for this story?   In the book, I write about how it was a friend of mine who was like, "Well, did you want to die?" Because the girl in the novel that I was writing dies. When my friend asked it like that, I was like, "No!" People would always ask things like, "Why did you make it so the character is fifteen and doesn’t have any crushes or boyfriends? That’s weird!" People would ask these questions that I didn’t feel like I could have an answer to unless I wrote the truth. It was a story that I circled for so long through fiction. I think when we met, Anna, I had a deal for the fiction version of this book with a publishing house that had a big turnover. A bunch of contracts moved or got dropped and my editor dropped my book and I never got an explanation for why. It felt like this huge failure. I think I was twenty-five, and I felt like this book contract gave me an identity as a writer. I felt like I lost that identity when I lost the contract. I left my agent because he handled it so poorly. I think that that process was actually very important to approaching this book and making it feel like a more nuanced memoir. Your life experiences have also changed so much. It’s a memoir about illness, but also a memoir about motherhood, and these two ways that your body can feel like it belongs to something else. Totally. Like, it’s not your own body. I feel weird about the word "memoir" because I think that most people think of the word memoir as like, my life story. Even though memoirs right now are so exploratory, exploding that concept and showing just how varied the form can be, I sometimes just tell people that it is nonfiction. I tried to write it as nonfiction in sort of a short-form series kind of thing, and it always felt like it was too navel-gazing—or like it was just too much about me and too much about a sick teenager—and it just didn’t feel right. And even though my friends reading it were telling me that it was compelling and it really was much bigger than that, it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I really felt like it could be a story about something else. As soon as I got pregnant, I had this fear of what would happen to my baby. I think that it gave me this understanding of what my parents would have felt like, and what parents in general feel like when their children are sick. Also, just the hope that I had with having my own baby, I think that it was a counterbalance to the book. It allowed light and the future to come into the narrative in a way that it wouldn’t have if it was just a chronological story of my illness. Had you been reading memoirs about illness or motherhood? No, actually. Even though this is obviously a book about illness, it doesn’t feel like a book about illness in my mind. I think the book that I read that most closely matches Natural Killer is On Immunity, by Eula Biss. The way that she talks about how her pregnancy changed her perspective on vaccinations, and the history of vaccinations, and conversations she had with other mothers about their hesitancy vaccinating their children. She dived into this mythological history and cultural history and geographic history and etymological history. There’s a medical aspect and a personal aspect. She’s not anti-vaxxer at all. She’s very pro-vaxxer. But she shows the journey in a way that I think would appeal to somebody who might be vaccine hesitant. The personal and medical aspects are braided together very well. I hadn’t read a ton of memoirs when I started writing mine. I didn’t even really know that I could do it the way that I was doing it. Once I got the deal, and once I started writing my book, I read more and more memoirs and I realized just how different they could be. I really love Annie Ernaux, the French writer. She wrote a book called Happening, which was about her getting an abortion when abortions were still illegal in France. The whole book is about this one event, how it happened, and her feelings about it. If there’s no access to abortion, you have to be incredibly covert and discrete about who you talk to. So that was another book I liked that had a medical aspect to it without being about sickness. You said something earlier about how pregnancy shaped your perspective of what your parents went through. The book ends with the birth of your son, and now you’re living with this little human at home with his own little personality outside of you. Has that further shaped your perspective? I’m really glad that I wrote it when I did because I think for me, the fear was most heightened during pregnancy and immediately afterwards. It was that feeling of like, my body betrayed me when it got cancer. I was really afraid of my body betraying me with having the baby. That fear was very poignant and profound in those early times. For the first year, I had anxiety, but I think that’s normal for most first-time parents. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t worry about their child, but the more Arlo grows up, the less I’m able to think about it. So I feel like I wouldn’t be able to access those fears now, because I just can’t let my mind go there.  Like almost every other parent I know, I go into his room when he’s sleeping and make sure that he’s breathing. I was thinking about that just this morning, how every parent I know does that. And I haven’t heard a single story of a child dying peacefully and inexplicably in their sleep. Yet children get sick or have accidents, and those are the things that are much more likely, but I feel like I can’t let myself think about that. If I do it just paralyzes me. Had you revisited those forum posts and old journals from when you were sick in the intervening years before you started working on this book? I’m sure I looked at the forum posts in the years afterwards, but it was fifteen years later that I started writing this book and by that time the website was so old that the servers that hosted it had long since dropped it. But my dad is the kind of very organized engineer who, of course, archived them. He had those for me to look at when I asked later, when I was starting to write the book. I hadn’t looked at any of my medical records because that was all in the hospital. I had looked at the journals in passing, and I would occasionally glance through them because in the years that I would go to my appointment for my checkups—first weekly, then monthly, bimonthly, then annual—my dad was always reminding me to bring the journals. It was just part of this routine.  I actually found it very, very hard to read the journals from start to finish because there’s this feeling of a climax in them. There’s a very natural arc of, "Oh my God is she going to live or is she going to die?" Even though obviously I know that I lived, it was still really dark. I could just sense the possibility that there would have been the entry being like, "Well, 4:03 a.m., Harriet died." When I was reading the part in which I was in the ICU and getting sicker and sicker and the doctors didn’t know what the infection was or how to cure it, in both the journals and medical records, I think my doctors and nurses and parents were striving for a neutrality, like a factual record of the events that happened. But of course, there’s so much personality that comes through in my dad’s voice and my mom’s voice and the doctors’ notes and the nurses’ notes in there. The doctors’ notes were generally a lot more sterile than the nurses’ notes. I think the nurses have to write in a certain structure, like, "Received patient awake," or "Received patient asleep with father at bedside." There’s a formula to the way that they write them that naturally has a bit more emotion to it. The doctors’ notes are usually just numbers, or "biopsy plan for 12:40 tomorrow with imaging," or whatever. There were the moments when I was super, super sick, and I could just sense the emotion in the notes. When the fever broke, one of the doctors wrote "Fever Broke!!!" Three exclamation marks. I could just sense his relief and joy, and that was really moving. Reading this book, as you said, obviously you survive. But even with the best possible outcome, that you’re in remission and that you have this beautiful family, you still went through this incredibly traumatic thing. Both that fear and the daily trauma of this experience really comes through the page. I think adding the present-day narrative was, for me, about adding the element of what it’s like to have survived that. Rather than just focusing on living through it, the present-day narrative allows me to have these interjections of thinking, "How did this affect the rest of my life?" There was a definite before and after in my life, and I think that so many people have these kinds of events in their lives that mark a before and after, whatever that might be. For me, it was very much about what it was like to have lived fifteen years without having had cancer, and then living the rest of my life having had cancer. I think there’s so many ways in which that experience changes a person, and adding these thoughts throughout the book from a present-day self allows for these questions to echo throughout the book.   A few years ago, when I was working at a children’s bookstore, I remember there being a wave of young adult novels coming out about illness, cancer specifically, written for the most part by people who hadn’t gone through that experience firsthand. Like [The Fault in Our Stars author] John Green. Exactly, and a lot of similar books that came after his success. You would have been outside that age demographic, but did you read any of those books? I hadn’t, but obviously I heard all about them. The fiction book that I was writing that I talk about in the book, called Everything We Could, I had been working on it for such a long time. It got submitted right as The Fault in Our Stars came out, and a lot of editors were like, "ehhh, it’s a similar theme." I was so frustrated, because I was like, "This is a different story!" you know? It’s a personal story. I think that making it nonfiction definitely helped make it different from that genre. The "sick girl novel" genre.   If a book like Natural Killer had been around when you were fifteen, detailing someone’s experiences of having gone through this and surviving, how do you think you would have reacted to it? Oh, I think it would have been so, so important. As I write about in the book, so many of my peers who were in the hospital died. You don’t see that many hopeful stories, and it was really hard for me and my parents to not know anyone who had survived. My illness was so rare and unique. I didn’t write about this in the book because it’s about somebody very specific, but a young woman who actually went to the same university that I ended up going to, she had AML, which was one of the variants I had. She had a bone marrow transplant, which I was supposed to have. I can’t remember who it was that connected it—it might have been a social worker at SickKids—but she was treated at a hospital in Kingston. It was an adult hospital, so certain procedures were different. She wasn’t anesthetized for a lot of procedures that they anesthetize children for. Anyway, when I was in the middle of treatment, we were connected and she came to visit me a couple of times. And I remember, that was a huge light. For both my parents and for myself, the idea that she had gone through this and now she’s in university. She ended up getting her PhD and I think she’s a doctor now. It was just really important to know that people live.
‘There’s An Absence in Language for Communicating Something as Visceral as Pain’: An Interview with Mona Awad

The author of All’s Well on dark academia, Shakespearean witches, and the tragicomedy of chronic pain

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven,” says All’s Well That Ends Well’s Helen early in the play. It’s a sentiment not at all helpful to Miranda Fitch, the erstwhile actress and current beleaguered drama professor of Mona Awad’s off-kilter novel All’s Well (Hamish Hamilton). Miranda might well know that the pain she feels constantly radiating from her back and leg shouldn’t still be affecting her, and yet the pain persists. Struggling through a failed marriage, entitled students, and a roster of doctors no longer receptive to her suffering, there seems to be no hope for Miranda until three men, ominously gathered in a local bar as if in Twin Peaks’s Black Lodge, offer her respite. Suddenly, there is no more agony; every part of Miranda’s once-stalled life now teems with possibility. In All’s Well, fantasy blurs with nightmare as pain is suffered and then shed, with dramatic, Shakespeare-worthy turns of fate transforming what was once a curse into a terrible, powerful gift. Alyssa Favreau: A good place to start is this novel’s treatment of chronic illness. Why was it important for that to be the central theme? Mona Awad: I started there. I started with an interest in exploring chronic pain because it’s something that I suffered from for a number of years and had been living with daily, not really [being] able to find relief, trying all these different doctors, and going to different surgeons. I’d had surgery on my hip and just couldn’t find a solution for it and had to live with it. And so I really wanted to explore what it’s like to live with that every day and the ways in which it impacts so many aspects of your everyday life. And it made me really dreamy, made me dream about what it would be like if one day this pain were taken away. I started fantasizing, sometimes quite darkly, about what that might look like, how that might feel. I was reading Shakespeare at the time, and Shakespeare has all these incredible reversal of fortune-type stories, and that was very inspiring. The two just came together like a perfect confluence. It seems so important, too, that in this story the pain be a woman’s pain, that it be minimized and ignored and disbelieved in such a gendered way. Was that also the story you wanted to tell? Absolutely. One of the most challenging things about being in pain is just having your experience understood and validated by the world around you. And I think, when you’re a woman, that’s so difficult. Certainly that was my experience with doctors and physical therapists and even in the workplace. And it’s not only harder for people to believe you, but it’s harder for you to believe in yourself when you’re speaking on your [own] behalf. When you’re advocating for yourself, it’s almost like the internalized misogyny just cripples you from the start. We’re just so trained not to believe women, and women are so trained not to believe themselves and not to believe their own experiences. I really wanted to explore that, and with Miranda, of course, it’s even more fraught because she’s an actress. When you are in pain, the act of communicating it, especially something as nebulous as chronic pain … you kind of end up performing it, just to communicate it to someone else. And that act of performance also amplifies the ambiguity and makes you second-guess yourself, even though you have to do it in order to communicate your pain.  That was something that really struck me, the discussion of the performance of pain. The line from All’s Well That Ends Well says it best: “I do affect a sorrow, but I have it too.” Having the pain but also needing to perform it in a way that is legible to others. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful line from that play. I love it so much because Helen is in pain, but when she says that, we don’t trust her anymore. She says, “I do affect a sorrow, but I have it too,” and the affectation creates the doubt, even though there’s a part of you that knows it’s sincere. That’s what makes it troubling. That’s what makes Miranda troubling. The pain is real, but she is performing it. That line was enormously inspiring to me; it’s really what gave birth to the whole thing. I was interested in how Miranda is embodied, as well, and her changing relationship to her body. There’s sex. There’s her gourmandise and her trajectory towards having this more balanced relationship with her body. Was that at the front of your mind while you were writing?  Yeah, because you’d think that pain would make you more in touch with your body. And it does in a lot of ways because you’re so hyper aware. You’re just waiting. “Oh, God, is this going to get worse? Is it going to get better? I just don’t know.” So it makes you hyper aware of your body, but it also cuts you off from your body in these really strange ways. That’s the experience Miranda has. Initially she’s extremely cut off from her body, and then her relationship to it changes as her relationship to her pain changes. That was very intentional for her to go through a journey with her body. And she’s an actress, so she already has a very particular relationship to her body. That was very important, that arc. From a writing perspective, how did you approach creating the claustrophobia of Miranda’s pain? It was pretty easy. It’s something that I experienced, so I could really tap into my experiences of being in that place. I don’t usually say that writing is cathartic, but it was cathartic to give expression to that because pain is so difficult to communicate. There’s a scene where she’s trying to tell her physical therapist about her pain, and she’s like, “It’s red and it’s throbbing and it feels like there’s a chair on my foot.” And he’s like “Red… Throbbing… A chair.” What do you make of that? There’s this absence in language for communicating something as visceral as pain. I wanted to make the language as visceral as possible. I really leaned into that experience of feeling and not being able to give expression. You have to make do with these phrases and these metaphors that don’t quite do it justice. I’ve never thought about it that way, of writing as creating the language of pain. That’s fascinating. It was actually fun. The novel takes place in a college drama department, and the dynamics and quirks of the Shakespearean production are so perfect. What’s your history with the theatre? I was really into theatre in high school, and then I kind of dropped away from it and fell in love with English literature, [though] I still was really interested in the plays and would go see productions whenever they were in town. Shakespeare really, really became important to me when I was in pain. I was a graduate student [when] chronic pain first came into my life. I was taking a Shakespeare class with these reversals of fortune, these story arcs where your whole life could really change. The story of All’s Well That Ends Well is wonderful because a king is actually healed in the play. This young nobody orphan, this clever wench, actually gets what she desires, even though the play begins and she’s completely powerless. She manages to overturn the whole world of the play and get what she wants, and I found that really troubling when I first read it. But there is something about her agency in this world—where she starts off being so powerless—that was exciting to me. I really wanted to capture that. And it felt really kindred to Macbeth as well, so I started thinking about the two plays together. I’d like to ask you about that—how, with the ways in which the two plays interact with each other, it almost seems like one is haunting the other. Why these two plays in particular? One is on stage—All’s Well That Ends Well—and that’s of course the life that Miranda wants. It’s the comedy with the bizarrely happy ending, the improbable love. That’s the life that she wants for herself, and she’s trying desperately to stage it. The life that she is living off stage is, of course, the life that she doesn’t want, the play she doesn’t want, the tragedy: Macbeth. But there is a through line between those two plays, even though one’s a comedy and one’s a tragedy. Both are about these outlier characters who at the start of the play don’t seem to have any power within the world of the play, or they have less power than they want. And then they have to take this wildly transgressive action in order to make their desire come true, to make it manifest. That’s kind of how I see the two of them speaking to one another. One goes down the road of comedy, and it’s light and nobody dies. The other, of course, goes down the road of tragedy, and there’s murder and madness and beheadings. I wanted to explore both, one on stage and one off, because I think it’s the same story ultimately. I was really struck by the fact that witches are such a prominent figure in both plays. You’ve got Macbeth’s three witches in the form of the three mysterious gentlemen, and how their destructiveness begins to overwhelm a more healing and generative magic that All’s Well That Ends Well’s Helen has. I love that crossover. Helen does have a witchiness in All’s Well That Ends Well, which is part of the reason why I love her. She’s got this strange trickster energy. She can heal a king and get what she desires. It’s all very strange. And then the three witches in Macbeth are so fascinating. To what degree do they orchestrate the whole thing? To what degree does Macbeth really have free will? It’s one of the great ambiguities of that play. I wanted to play with that in this book. There are two different kinds of magic, and both kinds of witchery are in the novel: that kind of good, healing energy and then the more malevolent energy of the Macbeth witches. All’s Well That Ends Well is famously one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Do you see this novel as a sort of problem play? Definitely. I see it as tragicomic, which probably is what makes it a problem play or problem novel. But I also see it as the most honest expression of what I could have done as a writer engaging with these two plays, because I love the way that tragedy informs comedy and comedy informs tragedy in storytelling. I love when that happens in storytelling. That’s when you get the most potent comedy and that’s when tragedy is the most moving, when they’re walking hand in hand. And so, in this book, I really tried to do that. I tried to create both experiences simultaneously for the reader.  I was surprised by how inspiring I found Miranda’s bitterness. It seems like a kind of resistance to have her be so angry and so ungracious and disillusioned with everyone around her. Was that always part of her DNA or did it manifest in the writing of her? She surprised me. She’s both the hero and the villain of her own story because she is both a kind of Helen and a kind of Macbeth/Lady Macbeth figure. I could have fun with her villainy as the book progressed. She’s been suffering for so long, and suffering corrupts you. It does things to your heart. It does things to your brain. And Miranda’s not immune. And then the sudden absence of suffering, the euphoria that comes after the suffering has ended, that’s another kind of strange filter through which to experience the world. That changes you too, changes your ability to empathize and see clearly and respond to people. I had fun with that, and I think it’s part of her humanity. To not go completely there with her would have been doing a disservice to her humanity. When she does manage to pass her pain on to others, it reads almost as a revenge fantasy, as if giving the pain to others is a way of being believed and taken seriously. Yeah, yeah. “Feel it. Feel what I’ve been feeling. And then you’ll know that it’s not a lie.” That’s the dream of people who are in pain, or at least it was my dream, sometimes, with doctors who didn’t understand or who would just blink at me. “I wish you could feel this, because then you’d know, you’d understand my desperation.” It’s a way of creating empathy, where maybe there is no empathy, even though it is a revenge fantasy at the same time.  This novel has some overlap with your previous book, Bunny. I’d be interested in hearing you talk a bit more about that and whether you were interested in creating a through line for your readers from one novel to the other. There are definitely parallels. Obviously there’s still interest in the supernatural. There’s interest in the fantastic, in witchery and the occult. Bunny has all of that. Interest, too, in New England, that Gothic setting, and in the college campus. I love the fact that All’s Well also has that school year arc. There’s something about it that feels very comforting to me. It was fun to revisit a college campus again. And I love the tensions and the power dynamics that you find in a school. School is like a microcosm of the world. In Bunny, we experience the story from the student’s perspective, and in All’s Well we’re seeing things through the eyes of a teacher. I was surprised at the degree of powerlessness that Miranda feels as a teacher; it’s not really something that I fully understood until I became a teacher myself. I always thought as a student that teachers had a lot of power. They were kind of intimidating. But now as a teacher I realize I have no power; it’s all a performance. Students have a lot more power than they realize. Young people have a lot of power. It was kind of fun to explore the other side of the desk that way Both novels have this way of manifesting a new reality through artistic expression, too. Absolutely. It’s true. Miranda’s vision for All’s Well That Ends Well gives so much expression to her interior anguish and also her longings. And that’s also the case for Bunny, for the Bunnies and for Samantha. Their creations are the expressions of their fears and desires. You’ve got this amazing ability to create these kinds of manic funhouse-mirror worlds where reality and delusion is so blurred. What appeal do these worlds hold for you?  That anything is possible. It’s the realm of the imagination. Anything becomes possible. In Bunny, the fact that I was looking at the world through the eyes of a writer in an MFA program allowed me to open up the borders of reality. In All’s Well, the fact that it’s theatre fiction [meant] I was able to do the same thing. Even though the stage is a physical thing in the book, it extends far past the school’s stage into the world of the novel. And that allows for anything to become possible, allows for theatrics to take place in any realm, in any part of the world of the novel. That was so exciting to me.  The phrase “all’s well” gets repeated a lot throughout the text and takes on such power as both this kind of invocation that darkly manifests, but also as a reassurance that sometimes all does end well. When I first read the play, I thought that that was such a dark phrase: “All’s well that ends well.” Well, what came before? There could have been all of these terrible things, but one can still say, “all’s well that ends well,” and it sounds good. I remember when I first started reading the play, I kept picturing this woman straightening towels in a bathroom [while] her house was on fire. And that ends up in the book as a memory Miranda has with her mother. I pictured this woman saying it as a mantra to herself, even as her life is falling apart. It has a lot of darkness, even though it’s a reassuring phrase. I like that it’s reassuring, [even though] it has the potential to hold a lot of darkness and mystery in it. Do you see this as a hopeful novel? Yes, absolutely. And I wrote it as such. There’s actually an original ending that’s not so hopeful, but I didn’t stick with it because I didn’t want darkness to win in the end. I wanted hope, and I wanted the redemptive power of the feminine to be there. I do think it’s hopeful. It’s more All’s Well That Ends Well than it is Macbeth in the end.
‘She Was a Mystery’: An Interview with Camilla Wynne

The author of Jam Bake on flavour libraries, candied fruit and making things with your hands that taste good. 

Through the most locked-down periods of the pandemic, I have felt cinched by my own routines, with only brief hours of darkness to peel apart the mille-feuille of same-o. Like many of us, I took some comfort in the calming measures of the domestic: cooking, sewing, and frenzied bouts of cleaning. Now facing an Omicron-haunted winter, I return to my kitchen cupboards for escape, pawing through the hardened bags of brown sugar and exhausted cartons of baking soda. On the top shelf of the pantry where I keep coffee and tea—dusted with the fragrant debris of both—are two unopened mason jars, one cherry jelly and another of pink grapefruit marmalade. Both of these are gifts from Camilla Wynne, whom I met in the brief intersection of summer and freshly vaccinated, to discuss her (then) just-released book, Jam Bake (Appetite). I can’t bring myself to break the seal on these precious jars, which preserve fruit, and something else.  Some years ago I became transfixed by the elaborate cakes baked and decorated by Wynne, formerly of the Montreal-based jam company Preservation Society; a musician, pastry chef, teacher, and gentle hedonist whose mastery of what she calls “back-to-the-land” skills elevates the domestic to levels of fantasy like Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. One such cake posted to her Instagram account features three extravagant tiers, laden with candied fruit—another of Wynne’s specialties. In  Jam Bake, Wynne brings her rare creativity to the masses, sharing endlessly adaptable preserve-oriented recipes and gorgeous photographs of the results. Not only about jams, jellies, and marmalades, the book also features splendid baked good recipes (kamut and poppy seed muffins with pink grapefruit and almond marmalade filling; gateau basque with coffee, date, and pear jam) in which you can inject your freshly made preserves if you don’t want to limit them to toast.  Last summer, Wynne invited me to her home to chat about Jam Bake, and to make sour cherry jelly in her charming Toronto kitchen—the jelly that now lives in my pantry. My first in-person interview in nearly two years, I felt utterly drunk on the pleasures of Wynne’s vibrant workspace and immense charm (which comes through in her recipes, too). Dressed in a periwinkle zebra-print dress and coordinating Jacquemus socks, Wynne walked me through the steps of jelly-making before taking me out to her flower and plant-filled balcony, where we discussed her incredibly varied career, safe canning techniques, dresses that look like cakes, and cakes that look like dresses. Naomi Skwarna: What was your gateway to jam, jelly, and marmalade? And more generally, preserving? Camilla Wynne: I’ve always loved sugar and fruit and was pretty obsessed with it as a kid—plus the confluence of my granny and my aunt’s homemade jelly and jam. It had an air of mystery because we never made it at my house. I was the city slicker and then there were all my country cousins. When I started working in pastry, there was something so compelling about preserving because of its shelf life. [In pastry], we made so many things that were only good for that day, and so I was intrigued by the idea of being able to prolong the lifespan of all of these fruits that I loved.  Then, when I left working in kitchens to go on tour with my band, I would get so upset every time we’d tour during sour cherry season! So when I was home, I started squirreling away all those flavours to enjoy later on. A flavour collection. Yeah! A flavour library. Preserving does seem like an effective way of extending the life of something that is otherwise sort of ephemeral. Since you were self-instructing, did you ever make any big mistakes, or was it pretty smooth sailing from the start? I think any of my errors have been eclipsed by stories from my students about their seriously crazy mistakes. For instance: I have never given my friends botulism. A student of mine once announced, “I’m here at this pickling class because last year I gave all my friends botulism.”  You’re extremely clear about canning safely in the book—I mean, you do put a lot of time and clarity into ensuring that people don’t make those mistakes—but the pickling section definitely struck a bit of fear in my heart.  Thank you! I was self-taught at the beginning and I was so frustrated about this hard line North American National Center for Home Food Preservation thing that basically says anything that’s not this is danger! But then I’d read a book from France or England and they’d say, “close the jars and turn them upside down.” I was like, are they dying in droves over there? There are lots of ways to can safely. When I teach, I show you how to work safely in what I think is the easiest and the fastest way, because I always want more time to read novels. Yes, there are a lot of bad, scary ways to can, but I teach how to discern the difference. If you understand the principles, you can objectively look at a method and tell that’s not safe. If you’re just following a set of instructions, you’ll either be a hard liner, or else you’ll just follow whatever instructions come your way, be they safe or not. It’s extremely important to my teaching philosophy for people to understand why, because I found it so hard to get anyone to tell me how it really works.  Well, props to your student for giving all their friends botulism and still wanting to learn how to do it.  He was a very enthusiastic 23-year-old man. Good for you, sir, but also: wow. Will his friends ever eat something he preserves again? I wouldn’t, personally! Coming back to your training—you’re one of Canada’s only Master Preservers. What does that process entail? It’s a lot less fancy than it sounds—it’s just not a program offered in Canada. I wish it were, because I think it’s extremely valuable. The idea is that universities, Cornell in my case, have extension co-ops in agricultural communities for the university to be able to disseminate their research to the farmers. So they have these programs to become a Master Preserver or a Master Gardener, where people learn to be experts at, well, “expert,” you know, through a five-day course. But we learn enough that we can then teach other people how to safely preserve. It covers freezing, pressure canning, hot water bath canning, and drying. Then basically, there’s a test, plus completing a certain number of hours of teaching or writing about preserving methods to show that you thoroughly understand the methods. It was so nice and great, but they also literally made us chant “canning is not creative cooking,” and my whole thing is that that’s not true if you understand [the science]. Reading your book, creativity feels like such a defining feature of your recipes and aesthetic. What does creativity mean in what you make and how you teach? Sometimes I’ll ask my students, “Who else here feels if they can’t be creative, they’ll die?" And everyone will be like: (stares blankly). Maybe one person will say, “okay.” I consider myself a cook as well. There’s such a dichotomy between cooking and pastry, but I cook a lot and I write a lot of savory recipes, too. I hope I don’t spend my whole career pigeonholed as only making sweets. In the end, it’s all making something with your hands that tastes good. When did you start teaching?  I began in 2011 because of my friend Natasha Pickowicz, who’s a famous New York pastry chef now. She was working at the Depanneur in Montreal and was always organizing events; she’s a real organizer. And now you teach so many classes! Your candied fruit is really breathtaking, and such a unique skill to offer a class for. How do people respond to it?  That class was so popular in the winter, I think partly because everything was locked down and no one I know has ever seen a class like that offered before. I couldn’t believe it! I thought no one was going to come, but it was my best-selling class for sure. Those fruits are so gorgeous. Right. I know. They’re so beautiful. You mention that dichotomy in Jam Bake, too. It reminds me of what you said earlier about being a pastry chef and preserver—that the pastries you made were meant to be eaten straight away— Yes, I don’t want to see a croissant more than two hours after it came out of the oven. They’re like those insects that only live for one day.  It’s like your work is split between making delicacies with brief lives and ones that can live for very long time. And then the bridge there is fruitcake! You’ve found so many outlets for your skills—as a pastry chef, writer, teacher, and through running a business. But it seems now that you’re very much your own boss. What are some of the challenges faced by someone who wants to work the way you do in the food industry? Restaurants, which is where I worked, are their own whole thing, and we all started to see how highly problematic they are over the past couple of years. Pastry chefs, particularly, are paid less, appreciated less, and are the first to go when layoffs need to be made. Dessert is always considered optional and pastry chefs dispensable. But, arguably, fine dining is about celebration, you know? And that’s exactly what desserts are for. Sometimes I get insecure about internalizing the idea that desserts are superfluous and I’m not doing it to help anyone. But pleasure is important, you know? It makes life nice. I have to remind myself of that frequently, especially being in a relationship with someone who literally keeps people alive [Wynne’s partner is an anesthesiology resident]. You’re like, sure, and I give you cake! There’s pleasure in the making and in the receiving of cake! And a lot of your cakes in particular are some of the most stunning, sculptural things I’ve ever seen. Thank you. I obviously don’t post the ones that aren’t...[laughter] That’s every artist’s prerogative. What inspires your creativity, outside of the cooking world? Definitely clothes! I spend a lot of time looking at clothes I’ll never afford. Lately a lot of them look like fancy cakes. That is very true. Molly Goddard— Yeah. And Cecilie Bahnsen. All the ruffles? Ok, so I wanted to ask you—we’re still in the pandemic, but moving into a different phase of it. You mention in Jam Bake that making preserves has brought a lot of joy into your life. Can you talk about that joy, or the mental state this type of tactile, sweetie treat creativity cultivates in you, and what you think others can get out of it? Even though I was highly inconvenienced by jars being out of stock everywhere last year when I was starting my online classes, I also couldn’t deny how awesome it was. I love that people are taking this up, because I do think it’s so full! There’s the kind of meditative pleasure of the act itself and then the wellbeing of a stocked pantry. It really makes you think, like, maybe it makes sense during these apocalyptic times to have weird, back-to-the-land skills. Being able to eat well throughout all this must have been a real source of comfort. The act itself brings the same sense of relaxation as yoga, I find. And I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people are nervous about canning or cooking if they haven’t done it before. If they could instead just take a breath and think: I’m just observing this thing and I know what to look for. I’m not asking anything of it. I’m entering into a dialogue with this pot. We don’t speak the same language, but maybe it can tell me when it’s ready. It’s like trying to see if a baby’s hungry. When you bake a cake, you can’t really watch it rise. It’s quite a quick process—maximum twenty minutes—but you have to be there. You can be checked out and maybe it’ll work, but also you might burn it. If you’re really there and just appreciating the serenity of observing transformation, then you’re probably going to do a better job. It just, I don’t know, unclenches something. I think it’s so nice. Yeah, I can see that.  Wasn’t it thrilling when we saw those cherries transform from liquid to a solid? That’s why I call it alchemical. I know that’s just science, actually. It’s called transformation of states.  We don’t really experience a lot of obvious transformation in our everyday lives. There’s the maillard effect—cooking, browning. But that’s more routine, as things we see every day. But making jam, it’s really special to see. It feels magic and if you’re not willing to experience the magic of things, well, that’s not fun for life.  Beyond the actual making of beautiful jams, jellies, marmalades, and cakes, what’s the most fulfilling type of project for you? The satisfaction of writing a well-written recipe, and also making something taste good. I really have realized over the past couple of years that writing and making recipes is my absolute favorite thing. I also love teaching and I never want to stop doing that, but if I could manage to make a living by writing and making recipes? That would be certainly the dream for this guy. I have a pretty fleshed-out idea for my next book, so hopefully I can start concentrating more on that, getting it sold.  What will it be about? It’s a candied fruit book! There are just so many different techniques to explore and then there are so many things to bake that are traditionally made with candied fruit, plus cool ideas for the syrup. I just think it’s a very rich topic—and I guess I will have to see who I can convince to agree with me.  [At this point in the interview, Wynne proceeds to lead me through a jelly tasting. Having told her earlier that I didn’t like jelly, she is now intent on turning me around]. That was so good. Tasting those flavours [damson, redcurrant, cherry,]—I am now a jelly convert. My work here? It’s done. I didn’t hate jelly, I just didn’t know jelly.  She was a mystery.
‘There’s No Formula to Fix Loneliness’: An Interview with Kristen Radtke

The author of Seek You on recognizing obsessions, Sandra Bullock, and separating solitude and loneliness. 

Being lonely can be painful. As a species, we’re born with an innate need to be with others, and the physical and mental distress caused by too much isolation is proof of this fact. To frame this another way, for nearly all of our time on Earth, to be alone was to be in danger. Thus, the feeling of safety and well-being derived from human connection is both an evolutionary quirk and one of the more meaningful experiences we can have. With incisive prose and distinctive photo-based illustrations, Kristen Radtke hones in on this complex subject in her book, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (Pantheon). A sweeping essay in graphic form, Radtke’s sophomore release reflects on laugh tracks, cowboy archetypes, Princess Diana, romantic comedies, mass shooters, and the early days of the internet. She describes a call service for solitary senior citizens, the infamous isolation studies of an anguished psychologist, and the industry of professional cuddling geared toward people starved for touch. She also discloses her own loneliness and conveys how fear and vulnerability are widely shared, writing, “I want us to use loneliness—yours, and mine—to find our way to one another.” Whether felt in our brains or our bodies, Radtke tells us, the ache of solitude is our signal to seek company. While tinged with melancholy, her book provides a compassionate perspective on the meaning of loneliness and the importance of human connection. The Brooklyn-based author and I recently talked about her latest book and how better understanding loneliness helped her to feel less alone. Andru Okun: Seek You is your second book. What themes or motifs do you think you’ve carried over from your first, Imagine Wanting Only This? Kristen Radtke: When my first book came out, I remember there was a review that said something about how I was grappling with isolation and loneliness, and I was like What do you mean? I’m not doing that. I didn’t recognize that was a theme I was working with, and I think sometimes it takes me a really long time to recognize an obsession I have in my work, or the fact that I may be working through something in my writing before I’m conscious of it. First books are complicated, difficult things, and I didn’t know when I started writing that I was writing a book. I just thought I was writing essays, so it came together in a very different way than this book, which felt like I had an intentional purpose when I began. There’s less memoir in this book and more reportage and research. Was that intentional? I never wanted to write a memoir. My first book sort of became one over time; I thought it’d be much more like Seek You in that it’d be more outward-facing, but early readers were asking for more personal information, like a personal guide to help them through the research. I think that’s the case for this book too—an early draft didn’t have any memoir or personal elements in it. I had a friend who pointed out that I’d done all this research, but they didn’t understand why I’d assigned myself this work. They wanted to see my personal stake in it. There’s also a discernible difference in your drawings between your first and second book. You’re now using colour, and the visual storytelling is more complex. As an author of graphic non-fiction, do you feel like the drawn components of your work grow in tandem with your writing? When I draw, it changes what I need to say and how I say it. I’m also communicating by using language in the images, and, of course, images are a kind of language in themselves. I can’t quite remember how the form started for this book—it isn’t sequential or in panels; it’s not a comic in the same way. I tried to remember how I came to that, and I really can’t. It just became the form that made sense to me as I was working.            You note that you started this book in 2016. This was also the year scientists first identified the part of the brain that responds to isolation. Was this discovery part of what prompted you to pursue this project or was this coincidental? It was coincidental. I didn’t know anything about the science of loneliness before I began writing about loneliness. All of my research was done in service of this particular interest. So, what exactly was the catalyst? I think 2016 was a lonely time for a lot of people. It was a challenging year. I’ve looked for research on whether loneliness spikes during election years in America. That research has not been done, or at least it has not been published publicly. But it seems likely to me that that would be correct because it does isolate us from each other in a pretty stark way.  Loneliness traditionally spikes at three ages—your late twenties, your mid-fifties, and your eighties. This makes sense because it’s when a lot of people go through a lot of life changes. I was in my late twenties, and I was just trying to figure out this transition into proper adulthood and what my life would look like, which can be a kind of isolating experience. I recently read Elisa Gabbert’s essay on loneliness that references some of the graphic essays you published before the release of Seek You. She makes what I think is an excellent point regarding writers: while we’ve come to think of solitude as a necessity, we really thrive off of interactions with strangers and crowds, that being around others engenders “a complicating energy that produces ideas.” I was wondering how you felt about this concept. It’s hard for me to say if that’s unequivocally true for everyone, but for me that’s definitely true. I find myself surprised where ideas come from, because I can never track what’s going to trigger something for me. It might be a conversation with a friend, a ride in the subway, or a thought I have as I’m falling asleep that I have to write down or it will be completely gone the next day. I think that we do like solitude, but I think it is really important that we separate solitude and loneliness because they sometimes overlap but they’re not the same. Someone can be very solitary and not be lonely, and another person can be extremely socially active and be cripplingly lonely. What does it mean for loneliness to rest, as you write, “in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want?”  So, there’s no formula to fix loneliness, no way to easily determine how much social interaction one person needs. You can have a very outwardly fulfilling personal life and still feel unfulfilled if your relationships are not providing you with the meaningful stimulation that you need. That’s one of the reasons I think that political divides make us more lonely. I hear a lot of people say that when Trump emerged, they just stopped talking to their uncle or their dad about politics. But as we know, the personal is political, and to not talk about politics means resisting talking about a big part of who we are, our belief system. And if we can’t talk about our belief system, it’s difficult to have deeply meaningful, authentic interactions. Even with a really active social life, someone can feel a kind of longing for connection or for a witness so they feel seen, and that can lead to a sense of loneliness. Did you personally have these types of experiences where you stopped talking to a family member or a friend over political disagreements? Yeah, I come from a very conservative place. I think that it’s very painful for people who have different political ideologies from their family, for sure. Why do you think separation is such a large part of American culture? I wrote about loneliness in America specifically because I’m American and American culture is what I understand best; but I’m also very interested in how loneliness is kind of coded into our ideology and our value system and how that’s a by-product of our insistence on individualism. If we look at the American dream, it’s this idea of the white picket fence, a big yard, and the ability to literally block yourself off from other people. You can define your space and claim it. Where I come from, your measure of success is how much land you can afford to have—how many acres—and there’s this pride in not being able to see your neighbours. You’ve made it if you can be isolated in that way. And I’m not saying there’s something wrong with wanting to live in the woods (there’s not), but I think that when we start to prioritize the self over the community—which I think we consistently do in America, and I think we saw this in the divides that arose during COVID—it starts to get very dangerous. That prioritization of the self has been a big part of our thinking probably since America’s conception. It’s as if loneliness and separation are built into the architecture and the layout of our communities. Absolutely. There are not that many community gathering spaces that aren’t based around commerce. When I was in high school, we would go to the mall. It was of course a place centred around consumerism and capitalism, but now what are the gathering places that people have? Some cities are better about green spaces and public parks, but we don’t have town squares or places where we can get a town-square feeling in a way that is quite common in other cities across the world. Wealth is a factor of loneliness as well, right? Generally, the more chronically lonely countries are wealthier. This is clear for a lot of reasons: wealthier countries have a skewed relationship towards work and a lot of the work is more isolating than it is in less wealthy countries. Office jobs, for example, can be quite isolating. People in wealthier countries are more likely to be able to afford to live alone or to delay marriage; also, wealthier countries have longer life expectancies, so you’re more likely to see people that you love die and you’re less likely to live with your family during that time. There’s a lot of caveats to this, though. A country that is at war is generally an extremely lonely place. Hannah Arendt writes about this in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism; she consistently found that loneliness was out of control in countries where people lived under dictators and couldn’t trust their neighbours. Your book suggests that our perceptions of loneliness differ depending on our personal experiences of gender socialization. What drew you to examine this construct? Honestly, I think it was Sandra Bullock. In the before-times, I used to fly a lot for work and it was sort of my favourite moment to watch terrible movies. It’s just one of the greatest pleasures in the world, to detach from any responsibility and just watch a stupid rom-com from the ’90s. And so, I’d watch a ton of Sandra Bullock movies, and I started to notice she was lonely in every single one, sometimes in the same tropey way and sometimes in very different ways. In Gravity she’s literally shot into space, and in other movies she’s a sort of hapless twenty-something in her tiny studio apartment trying to make it as an assistant in a cutthroat industry. But she’s always on the outside, and I was interested in that because the formula for how they solve that is relatively consistent, and it often involves making a romantic connection or occasionally a friendship. It’s very different from how men are portrayed. The rise of the anti-hero reinvigorated the cowboy trope. If you look at someone like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, or Walter White, they’re all cowboys and basically renditions of the same characters. This isn’t to say that it’s not entertaining, but they get to be sexy and coveted and alluring in a way that a rom-com heroine doesn’t get to be. Can you explain the idea of contagious loneliness? That was one of the most shocking things I researched, although once I understood it the concept made complete sense to me. I think it was something I was already recognizing in my personal life and my relationships with my friends. The scientist Dr. John Cacioppo discovered through his research that loneliness can become contagious and be transmitted to up to three people removed from one lonely person. Basically, once we enter a state of loneliness, we’re likely to start self-isolating. It’s kind of like depression or any kind of insecurity or self-consciousness—we start to assume other people don’t like us and that they don’t want to hear from us. We imagine that rejection will happen before that rejection takes place, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once someone is lonely—particularly when someone is chronically lonely—they kind of cocoon into themselves. So, if I’m isolating, and I have a best friend, she may feel rejected by me and stop reaching out, so then that relationship will become strained and severed and she could feel wounded, which creates a type of loneliness in her that she could then pass along to another person. How do you think our culture’s idealization of the past ties into present-day experiences of loneliness? I think it’s very easy to say that everything has gone to hell and things used to be so much better. Every generation has felt like This is the end. If you go back to ancient cultures, there was a sense that the apocalypse was coming. We often prescribe that to technological advances—as we make progress, we’re lamenting the things that we lost. And I think that’s really natural, but it’s also slightly misguided because things get sepia-toned and hazy, and we forget the difficulties and complications of the past. I think about this a lot when I hear complaints about social media, and I’m not saying social media isn’t a huge problem that has done enormous damage to our understanding of truth, news, our electoral system, and our relationships to each other. All of those things have been very damaging and, in a lot of ways, catastrophic. But I think that we assign a little too much blame to new technological advances like social media. I read that the New York Times wrote this scathing editorial about the invention of the telephone and how we would soon become nothing more than transparent bits of goop, or something like that. Every technological advance is assigned as the end of everything. You write about Yayoi Kusama, a fascinating and idiosyncratic Japanese artist best known for her room-sized installations lined with mirrored glass. Why did you want to include her in this book? When I went and saw her show, Infinity Mirrors, I didn’t know she would end up in the book, which is one of the great pleasures to me of non-fiction, that research can meld with personal experience, and you start to recognize connections. This maybe goes back to what we were talking about earlier about how it can be energizing to be around strangers, because you come across things you wouldn’t in your own apartment. I think Yayoi Kusama is a very lonely figure who has lived quite an isolated life, but her work, especially at the beginning of her career, was about narcissism. One of her first pieces was these mirrored balls that people could purchase and look at themselves. Now her artwork is some of the most photographed artwork in the world, and people will wait in line for hours to go and take a selfie. They’ll get dressed up in coordinated outfits that match her show and take photos to post on Instagram. I think it’s funny that so many years before social media was invented, she predicted this phenomenon. But there’s something compelling about her work and it’s so beautiful, so it’s like Yeah, I want a picture of myself in this. At the same time, it’s easy to critique or make fun of, that people are coming to see a show about narcissism and going exclusively to take a photo of themselves.  I’ve read Seek You twice now, and both times I found the chapter on Harry Harlow and his experiments on infant monkeys just so, so sad and upsetting. It’s actually a bit difficult to get through. Tell me about Harlow’s work and your interest in it. I became completely obsessed with Harlow. I had known about his famous surrogate mother studies, where he separated baby monkeys at birth and put them in a cage with a fake wire mother and a fake cloth mother. The wire mother dispensed milk; it was meant to either prove or dispel the idea that babies only loved their mothers if they fed them. I kept reading about him and came to know more about the studies he carried out after, which literally just became darker and darker. He started isolating monkeys in dark places without any visual stimuli for really long periods of time. He struggled a lot with his own mental health and he was hospitalized a few times and had electroshock therapy. He also had a really difficult personal life, including estranged marriages and distant relationships with his children. I just became very interested in how he came down this path of inducing isolation in animals as he was experiencing isolation himself. I tried to write about him with empathy and compassion, because I think that on the surface, it’s easy to say that he was doing these horrific things—which he was; there’s no way to deny that he was abusing those animals and that he was a sexist person and seemingly not a great, supportive partner—but I’m also interested in how we remember complicated figures in history. He really did change the way in which children were cared for, because prior to his study people thought you shouldn’t cuddle or coddle your children, and we now know that children need a lot of emotional support at a young age. How did writing this book change how you interacted with people out in the world? It’s hard for me to say, because just as I was finishing, the pandemic started. I think that making this book did make me feel less lonely because I understand loneliness more and I think I make more of a conscious effort to connect with other people than I used to, but I also think the pandemic has changed the way I interact with people in a similar way. It’s shown us that we actually do all owe each other a great deal, that it’s all of our collective responsibility to care for our neighbours and each other. That was the same conclusion I made in writing this book.
The (Other) French Chef

Julia Child’s collaborator Simone Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all.

The sky was still dark that morning in October, 1961, when a Frenchwoman named Simone “Simca” Beck and her American friend Julia Child headed over to the NBC studio sets in Midtown Manhattan, ready to make their television debut. They were to conduct a cooking demonstration for the Today show to promote Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), the 732-page tome both women had co-authored with the writer Louisette Bertholle. It had been released a few days before in America by the publishing house Knopf to rapturous reviews. Sales, though, could’ve been better. Appearing on Today, which pulled in around four million viewers a day back then, certainly couldn’t hurt. Though the book had three authors, Bertholle’s involvement became minimal as the book neared publication, which is to say it was really a two-hander between Beck and Child. And it was Beck, in particular, who contributed the majority of the recipes to early versions of the book, many of them family heirlooms from her upbringing in Normandy. Child, meanwhile, gave the text its American soul, making the recipes legible to readers in the United States.  On this day, they had five minutes to make an omelette on a hot plate. They were terribly nervous. Neither woman even owned a television. “When the camera and the sweltering lights were at last upon me in the studio, I nearly froze with fear,” Beck wrote in her 1991 memoir, Food and Friends. She just barely pulled through. Today, this clip of Beck and Child on Today has become somewhat hard to find, in spite of the fact that it’s so significant an historical artifact. It was, after all, the nation’s introduction to Child, who would seize the country’s imagination unlike any cooking personality had prior. Child called the experience “simply terrifying,” yet she was a natural compared to Beck. As the writer Bob Spitz observed in his Child biography Dearie, Beck’s “usual exemplary English sounded like French-accented Ukrainian,” and she ultimately “looked lost, diminished” on screen. In the years that followed, the two women remained friends and worked together on a second Mastering the Art volume, yet their paths eventually forked. Child found television stardom with The French Chef, her cooking show that premiered on public television in 1963. Beck, then in her late 50s (and roughly eight years Child’s senior), gained the respect of America’s food establishment through cookbooks of her own, but never achieved the same public adoration Child generated. The press was always happy to point this out. “Julia Child is a household name,” the food writer Colman Andrews wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “Simone Beck isn't—except perhaps in those rare households where the stove is more important than the television set.” It doesn’t take a genius to understand how this imbalance came to be. Child, after all, was American, with a jolly persona that could lift the saddest of spirits. Beck, bound to tradition in both culinary and cultural terms, was resolutely French. Yet Beck’s imprint on the way Americans think and talk about food is unmistakable. Both Beck and Child, as cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote months after Beck’s 1991 death, bore responsibility for “changing forever the way we think about eating.” Contemporary chronicles of Child’s ascent—numerous biographies of her, for example—have tended to paint Beck as a bitter shrew resentful of Child’s high profile. If comparing the trajectories of Beck and Child seems tasteless—setting two women against one another is a sport of the patriarchy—consider that Child herself even found Beck’s lack of fame unjust. “I felt that she was such a colourful personality, and so knowledgeable about cooking, that had she been American rather than French she would be immensely well known,” Child wrote in her posthumously published autobiography My Life in France (2006). Even in death, Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory, cast as the poor woman whom celebrity eluded. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all.  *** She was born in 1904, baptized with a long name typical of French families in the era: Simone Suzanne Renée Madeleine. Growing up in Normandy in an upper-middle class Catholic family, she knew English before French. Though Beck’s mother kept black notebooks full of recipes, her family could afford to hire a fully-staffed kitchen. Beck came of age at the side of her family’s cook, Zulma. She hung around the stove so often that its steam made her hair curl, made her cheeks turn ruddy. Cooking was a profession considered beneath a girl of Beck’s breeding, so that was out of the question—at least at first. Her parents told her to settle down with a man, so she followed the rules, reluctantly wedding a family friend named Jacques Jarlaud in June 1923. She was just eighteen. A short man, Jarlaud was the “unprepossessing equivalent of a frog,” Beck wrote in her memoir, she “some wide-eyed fairy-tale princess.” On her wedding night, Beck realized they had no physical chemistry. Years later, they would learn he was sterile, turning their marriage platonic. Beck led a superficial life for that decade with Jarlaud, spending her days playing bridge and grabbing lunch with friends. It took catastrophe for her to snap out of this stupor. She survived a brutal car crash in 1928, after which she “wanted something more regarding than the life of a young housewife, which was beginning to pall,” as she wrote in her memoir. So she threw herself into an unlikely profession: bookbinding. This wasn’t thrilling work, but she ended up doing it for four years, steeping herself in the art of perfectionism.  What she really wanted to do, though, was cook. Her father’s death from leukemia in the early 1930s made Beck ditch her husband and chase her culinary dreams. In late 1933, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. She only stayed there for six months, deciding that taking private lessons from one of the school’s founders, Henri-Paul Pellaprat, would be a better use of her time. Under his tutelage for two years, she learned how to make salmon-stuffed rolled sole fillets, soufflé with Bénédictine, young duck with turnips and gumdrop-shaped green olives. In the autumn of 1936, just around the time the ink dried on Beck’s divorce from Jarlaud, a man named Jean Fischbacher came into her life. Two years her junior, he worked at a perfume and cleaning product company, and Beck found him utterly charming. He christened her with the nickname “Simca,” after the small Renault car she drove. Their courtship was the first time that Beck felt something close to euphoria, an emotion her life had previously denied her. She’d only seen this happen in movies, just read about it in books. The two wed in April 1937, and food became a vital part of the life they built together. They socialized by having friends over for dinner, where Beck would make guests fish pâté in a pastry crust, serving it with Hollandaise sauce. Fischbacher taught her to have confidence in her abilities. With his encouragement, she began to shed the traumas of her previous loveless marriage, finding liberation in the kitchen. The chaos of World War II would intensify her ardour for food, which became a rare commodity. Fischbacher served in the army as a second lieutenant, stationed at the Eastern Front before the Germans took him captive. Back in Normandy, Beck would “carry on my own war,” she would later write, “dreaming up ways to send food to Jean.” She would pilfer Bénédictine from her family’s factory and trade it for butter, ham, and pâté that she would dispatch to Fischbacher. After Fischbacher’s release and the war’s end in 1945, Beck turned cooking into her identity. On her husband’s recommendation, she joined a high-class women’s gastronomic club called Le Cercle des Gourmettes in Paris. She found her footing in this exclusive circle quite quickly, hitting it off with one member in particular: Louisette Bertholle. Beck learned that Bertholle had been thinking about writing a cookbook for Americans all about French cooking. Beck’s husband convinced her to assist on that project. She didn’t hesitate. Beck taught herself how to type, and, over the next few years, worked tirelessly to breathe life into the book. She scoured her mother’s black recipe notebooks; she scanned her mind for recollections of Zulma’s cooking. Along the way, she and Bertholle produced a tiny recipe book called What’s Cooking in France, published by Putnam in America in 1952 to little fanfare; on her own, Beck also produced a small pamphlet devoted to prunes and prune liqueurs. These endeavors were just distractions, however, from the mammoth opus that consumed Beck’s energy. In 1950, when she was in her mid-forties, Beck submitted a book of a hundred-plus recipes to a family friend of hers, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Fisher was a famed author herself and a member of the editorial board of the Book of the Month club, a prominent subscription service in the United States. After months, Beck received a terse reply. “This is just a dry bunch of recipes, with not much background on French food attitudes and ways of doing things,” Fisher wrote. Fisher advised that the book would be better served with stories alongside those recipes. Beck’s husband told her not to be dismayed. Maybe she could find a collaborator other than Bertholle, a companion who knew French idiosyncrasies and the American way of viewing the world. It was a sharp suggestion, Beck realized. And she knew someone who fit the bill. *** Beck had met Julia Child at a party in early 1949. Born and raised in California, Child had worked at the Office of Strategic Services during the war, but she grew to love cooking after moving to Paris with her husband, Paul. When she and Beck met, Child was a student at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, yet she was upset with the lack of zeal among her classmates, most of whom were American World War II veterans. She yearned for a friend who cherished food like she did. “It was an immediate take,” Child would later write of her introduction to Beck. Child saw Beck as “good-looking and dashing in a most attractive and debonair way, full of vigor, humor, and warmth.” Beck, in turn, was struck by “this handsome, curly-headed woman” who stood over six feet tall. The two started plotting their partnership. Along with Bertholle, they began teaching cooking classes out of Child’s apartment, finding groups of Americans who were eager to grasp the fundamentals of French cuisine. The trio began calling their organization L’école des Trois Gourmandes, or “the school of three hearty eaters.” Teaching came easily to Child, yet Beck found the job unusually strenuous. Language was a particular obstacle. Though she knew English well, her manner of speech was decidedly British, her French accent foreign to American ears.  In spite of such differences in ability, Beck and Child remained close, and Beck soon involved Child in the book project. When Beck showed Child her budding manuscript, Child found the directions lacking in clarity. So she gave it a makeover. By 1957, when the Childs found themselves back in America due to work, the book had swelled to nearly 900 pages. Child suggested they present the book to Houghton Mifflin, located in Boston. This required Beck to visit America for the first time in her life. Then 54, Beck went to New York that following January, finding Americans “casual, generous, and outgoing,” so far unlike herself. When she and Child traveled to Boston for their meeting, however, they were disappointed to hear that the publisher’s editors wouldn't even make time to see them, so they left the manuscript with a clerk. Six weeks later, Houghton Mifflin wrote Child to tell her that the book was unpublishable, too academic to resonate with readers. Beck, having faced such rejection before, wasn’t deterred. After three months in America, she returned to France and got to work, trading letters with Child until they completed another draft at the end of 1959. After countless queries, it landed on the desk of Judith Jones, an editor at the publishing house Knopf. Jones promised to publish the book in 1961. Jones titled it Mastering the Art of French Cooking, its three authors credited in alphabetical order, with Beck’s name first. The book was a slow burn with the American public, though the press recognized it as a groundbreaking work quite quickly. Craig Claiborne, the renowned food editor of the New York Times, thought its thousand-plus recipes, whether for quiche Lorraine or cassoulet, were “written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are.” The book emerged in an era when Americans were becoming hip to French cooking; over in the White House, the Kennedys had the French-born René Verdon as their chef. Promoting the book required Beck to return to America to tour the country with Child, back when the very concept of a tour for a cookbook struck many as outlandish. They rubbed elbows with luminaries of the era—the British cooking teacher Dione Lucas, the pre-eminent food personality James Beard—while giving  department store demonstrations in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. It was during this time, too, that both women made their Today show appearance. Their labour paid off. Sales skyrocketed. Knopf ordered a second printing of 10,000.  Though Beck didn’t know it yet, Child’s brief taste of small screen glory would grow into a full-fledged hunger. By the time she and her husband had relocated to Cambridge , Child told Beck that she wanted to do a television show, thinking it would be a prudent way of getting word out about the book. In 1962, Child would make an omelette with mushrooms on a segment of an educational show broadcast on the public television station WGBH. Audiences responded to Child so emphatically that WGBH decided to give her a cooking show of her own. The cooking show was not exactly a new genre—both Lucas and Beard, for example, had their own in the 1940s—but it had yet to soar, lacking a figure who could fuse education with entertainment. With The French Chef, which began airing on WGBH in February 1963, Child offered just that. Viewers fell for the disarming lady who cleaned a pig’s ears and teeth with a toothbrush. Beck would later laud Child as “a natural film star”; she took to the camera like a moth to a porchlight. But Child began to wonder if her friend was suppressing some deeper sadness. On a late 1963 visit to Beck in France, Child vigorously dodged any mention of her show around Beck, writing that she “didn't want her to feel overshadowed.” According to her memoir, Beck didn’t seem to mind that great acclaim followed for Child. Child landing on the cover of Time magazine in 1965 boosted sales so much that the two women started toiling away together on a follow-up to Mastering the Art (sans Bertholle, who was busy with a book of her own). To make the writing easier, Beck and her husband even built the Childs a house not far from them in Provence where the American couple could live part-time. If the first cookbook had more of Beck’s stamp, Child took charge this go-around. Beck, then in her mid-sixties, found herself battling arthrosis. Plus, Child “gained confidence and authority, especially as she was the one living in America,” as Beck observed in her memoir. Once the cookbook appeared in 1970, Beck returned to America to publicize it. Child was the star of the proceedings, with Beck lucky to get any promotion. Any solo publicity Beck did grab framed her in terms relative to Child, with a Times headline declaring her “Simone Beck: The Cookbook Author Without a Show on TV.” People in Child and Beck’s orbit took note of friction between the two. “It became clear to me, in working so closely with Julia, that her relationship with Simca was growing more and more strained,” their editor Jones wrote in her 2009 memoir, The Tenth Muse. The two women “were like sisters who had long nourished each other but were ready now to go their separate ways.” Jones seemed more than happy to assist Beck in finding a new direction, telling her to write a book of her own based on a few recipes that had ended up on the cutting room floor. Beck heard similar clamours from fans she’d met on her book tour. So she began to write Simca’s Cuisine, a book co-authored with the American journalist Patricia Simon. The process was challenging. Jones, in her memoir, chides Beck’s supposed arrogance, saying she seemed allergic to constructive criticism. But she couldn’t deny Beck’s great instincts as a cook. Her recipes—for rolled soufflé filled with crab, eggplant quiche, and frozen caramel mousse—were from Normandy, from Alsace, from Provence. She included ingenious tips like how to cut onions without crying, telling cooks to “take a wooden kitchen match, light it, blow it out, and hold it between your teeth while slicing the onions.” Upon the book’s publication in 1972, Beck was quite proud. Vogue called it “simply and brilliantly done,” while the New York Times surmised it “is likely to be the last of the great personal cookbooks to come out of France.” In the Los Angeles Times, Jeanne Voltz noted that Child had “overshadowed” Beck while hinting at rumours of a “rift” between the two women, but that it didn’t matter, concluding that “this is a Frenchwoman’s gift of good home cooking to America’s venturesome cooks and eaters.” In spite of what registered to the public as obvious tension with Child, Beck came to terms with the fact that Mastering had served its purpose, allowing both her and Child to pursue their own passions. She could finally write—and live—as she wanted to. *** Beck spent the 1970s, a time when she was nearing her seventies, teaching and travelling. In 1976, she began a cooking school in Provence. But she also made time to jet around the world, conducting cooking demonstrations in Napa Valley and Venice.  Though Beck had intended her 1972 cookbook to be her last, these journeys inspired her to write New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine, published in 1979. Co-authored with her American assistant Michael James, the book relied on ingredients common to America. Beck folded macadamia nuts into cakes, ice creams, and blue cheese balls; she trapped avocados in aspic with tarragon and port. In spite of its American orientation, the book didn’t garner the same stateside reception as Simca’s Cuisine. The Chicago Tribune frowned that the “book falls short of Beck's previous works” due to recipes that became bungled in translation. She juggled her career commitments against twin tragedies in her personal life: the death of a brother, her husband’s stroke. Her husband would later die of cirrhosis in 1986, the same year that America’s International Association of Cooking Professionals honored Beck with a gala reception. Though Beck welcomed such recognition from America’s food establishment, her partner’s death devastated her, and she struggled to find reasons to live in his absence. Her life’s final great project routed her away from her grief: Food and Friends, a memoir and cookbook co-written with the American journalist Suzy Patterson. Per Patterson’s recollection, it wasn’t an easy working relationship. “The fun/torture of it for me was writing it,” Patterson wrote in the Montreal Gazette. The trouble may have been worth it. The engaging book was split into two halves, the first weaving between memoir and recipes, the second dedicated to a mix of French and international recipes like Italian-style green gnocchi, nasi goreng, and Brazilian mocha ice cream. The press reacted well to Beck’s swan song, with the Times saying that reading it was “like listening to your mother tell those entrancing stories of when she was a little girl.” It was Beck’s old friend Child who had persuaded Patterson to write the book with her. Though the two women saw each other less often as Beck approached old age, their bond remained. “You've got to do this,” Child reportedly told Patterson. “Simca's life story is fascinating and should be told.  *** Beck died mere months after the book’s publication, succumbing to heart problems in December 1991, when she was eighty-seven. “The doctor said that because she wouldn't eat, she died,” a cousin of hers explained to the Times. It was a cruel and poetic stroke of fate: Beck died because she lost her appetite. Her demise provoked widespread sorrow within the food establishment, with famed cooking teacher Peter Kump calling her “one of the most talented architects of the new gastronomic movement” in a Chicago Tribune piece. Child seemed especially crestfallen. “She was the first person who was interested in food the way I was—as a profession, a life-consuming passion,” Child told a journalist. “She felt as I did.” But in the years that followed, the historical record became unkind to Beck, all while Child’s prestige only grew. There were reports of the nicknames: Child’s husband Paul reportedly groaned of “Sigh-Moan,” commenting that she had a voice that could “be heard in Montevideo.” Judith Jones didn’t mince words when she referred to Beck as “condescending and difficult” in her memoir. Even the reappraisals have a tinge of viciousness: “No matter how refined her palate, her haughty, untelegenic French demeanor never won over the American public,” the writer Christine Muhlke observed in a 2006 T magazine piece. That’s not to say that saintly overcorrection is necessary in Beck’s case. In his 2017 book The Gourmands’ Way, the writer Justin Spring revealed how Beck’s hauteur could morph into ugly intolerance. “You’ll never find a communist in my house,” she told one reporter. She then continued: “The barbecue, where everyone joins together and has a good time, that has nothing to do with France. The melting pot works in the United States but not in this country.” Herein lies a reminder that Beck’s very way of perceiving the world was uncompromisingly, distinctly French. To be fair, many reputable figures have similar skeletons in their closet—in her 2007 biography Julia Child: A Life, the scholar Laura Shapiro unearthed evidence of Child’s homophobic attitudes, ugly sentiments that reportedly mellowed during the AIDS crisis. But Child’s well-documented prejudices have not prevented history from revering her. In the years following Child’s death, Nora Ephron would direct Julie & Julia, cementing her legend. The cultural fascination with Child is ongoing: A book of Child’s quotes appeared last year and documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed Julia, released this past fall. An eight-episode dramatic scripted series, Julia, is currently in production from HBO Max, with Isabella Rossellini cast in the role of Beck. Beck hasn’t inspired such a cottage industry, but perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted it. Near the end of her life, Beck made peace with the fact that stardom wasn’t for her, a reality that does not negate her contributions to American food culture. “I have always felt that my professional success was largely due to America and its cooks,” she wrote in her memoir. “My friends over there wonder why I’ve never been known as a cooking star in France.” She had some guesses as to why. In France, cooking television wasn’t the expansive genre that it was in America. Cooking there was a serious art, not a form of entertainment. “We have rock stars and movie stars, sports stars and even chef stars,” Beck wrote. “But cookbook writers and teachers?” Beck found gratification in the work itself. She had recipes to write, students to teach, and she saw little use in becoming a household name. To cook in pursuit of fame? Why, there was nothing more American.
‘Horniness Recollected in Tranquility’: An Interview with Hermione Hoby

Talking to the author of Virtue about writing as shedding self-consciousness, the impossibility of living an uncompromised life in a compromised world, and Toni Morrison’s bathroom.

“I wanted badly to be good; I wanted desperately to be liked. It was easy to confuse the two.” The narrator of Hermione Hoby’s new novel Virtue (Riverhead), a half-formed young man called Luca, takes up an internship at a much-acknowledged literary magazine amid mass revolt. Above the battles in the streets, piety and complicity mingle uneasily. He grows enamoured with an older artist couple from that orbit, Paula and Jason, becoming their own object of fascination. Installed at the pair’s summer home, Luca comes across a newspaper piece about Paula’s latest show: dolls mimicking family life inside domestic miniatures. Hoby’s debut Neon in Daylight had that dizzy gait of somebody trailing behind a crush; the romantic flights of its characters always risked stumbling into the gutter. Virtue manages a more sceptical eye even while inhabiting a single narrator, as Hoby reveals her gift for describing excruciating social situations: The gallerist visibly straining to recall your importance, the patrician editor proclaiming let us see what can be done, “an invitation that now impressed me for being simultaneously inclusive and egotistic.” Whatever distance Luca finally does find from that world arrives as desolation. Chris Randle: You're calling from Boulder, right? Hermione Hoby: I am, yeah. Are you in Brooklyn? Yeah. It was apocalyptic a couple of nights ago and now it's a beautiful fall day. I really hope you're not in a basement apartment. How was it? It was fine for me personally, I'm a few floors up, but there was so much—the last I heard a dozen people had died, transit shut down. On the night of the storm itself somebody I know was at Newark Airport, and they got trapped there for hours, because there were no flights, and the complex was slowly filling up with water. During the last big storm a couple weeks ago, I was heading to a friend's going-away party, and when I passed through Metropolitan, the G train stop, it smelled like raw sewage. All this infrastructure is rotting out. Yeah, it seems like a lot of people even in New York had no idea this was about to happen. My friend texted me and said, "My basement's flooded," and I was like, oh no, her pipe's burst, and then looked at Twitter and was assaulted by these apocalyptic images. I don't know if you feel this too, but I find one of the difficult things (among many) about being alive right now is this sense that nowhere is exempt from climate disaster. That if there were a place that was somehow environmentally safe, everyone would move there and it would no longer be safe, you know? It just rained here and the skies are clear but there's been wildfire smoke for days. My partner just ran out to get another air purifier—there was that sense of, better get one before they run out, and I hate finding myself in that mentality, that scrabble to protect oneself. I think that's what's behind the whole Peter Thiel thing—this right-wing fantasy of moving to New Zealand. Yeah, exactly. Just hunker down. It's applying that capitalist logic to life itself. Absolutely. It's so depressing. I was having this conversation with some friends recently: what do we do and how do we survive? There were four of us, two men, two women, and the guys were like, you prep, you get cans of food or whatever. And me and my female friend were like, "Why would you want to survive in such a world?" [laughs] What would be the incentive to stay alive in Peter Thiel's world, a world of squillionaires hunkered down in their cabins and the rest of us fighting each other to live? That kind of dovetails with the first thing I wanted to ask, which—I don't know where you're from originally in England, but Boulder is a very different landscape, different from New York as well, so I'm wondering if that's affected the way that you write at all. I'm from the southeast London suburbs, and I was just there recently, finally seeing my family again. It felt very—I hope this doesn't sound snotty—it felt small to me: I fear I've been spoiled on these extraordinary mountain vistas. I think it felt, small, too, in a miserably post-Brexit way: inward-looking, cramped. I don't know how it's changed me as a writer; I know it's changed the way I feel and think. I feel slower, I feel much more relaxed. When I go back and visit New York, I wonder how I ever got work done, because it's so noisy. It’s a place of intense stimulation and excitement, and Boulder is of course a great deal sleepier, but it's been wonderful to be in a place that's quiet, and full of natural beauty. This is the first time in my life that I've had a room of my own to write in, and it makes such a difference to go into a space, close the door, and know that space is yours, a designated space for work. It makes me feel incredibly fortunate. I guess the way that being here has changed my writing is just having an office, which seems like an unromantic answer [laughs]. I'm writing something now which is not set in Colorado, so maybe my Colorado novel is to come. One of my friends keeps insisting I write a Western. Both of your novels are almost infatuated with New York City. They really are [laughs]. I guess you were still living here when you wrote the first one, but with Virtue, how did you summon that back up again? You mean summon the sense of New York while I was here? Yeah, I feel like I sort of became myself in New York—it's a foundational place for me. I had lived in London-proper for a couple of years after graduating, but I never felt the sense of... it's not ownership, it's more like, oh, this place gets me, and I get this place, the way that I felt as soon as I arrived in New York. I was just like: here it is. I think I moved to New York when I was 25, which is an impressionable age, and I felt like the city made me who I was. So it's still very fresh and accessible. Neon in Daylight is very much a New York novel, but with this one I didn't think I was writing a New York novel at all. To me the setting was sort of incidental, but the dynamics of the city certainly feature, and the beginning and the end are set in New York. I suppose with this one I felt like what was driving me wasn't place so much, as it was in the first book, but character. As soon as they'd become real to me, the engine was there. I didn't have to conjure the city consciously, the thing that was driving it was these people. It's kind of like, in Neon in Daylight the setting is its own aesthetic, and in this one it feels more sociological. It's really gratifying to be read like that, because I felt like I wanted to write a more grown-up novel than the first one, in which New York was not just, as you say, an aesthetic experience, but a place that was politically fraught as well. I was also curious about the shift in perspective, because your first book has a third-person narrator and the characters get introduced in this almost symphonic way, one by one, circling around each other. Whereas Virtue is first-person, more of a monologue, and I'm wondering why you chose to switch it up. I will answer the question properly [laughs], but the preface to the proper answer is that, whenever someone asks about choice, I always feel like, ah, it's not exactly choice. With this one I just had his voice in my head, unbidden. It was like this voice in the aether had chosen me for a moment, just jumped into my brain as its host. And then of course there was the choice to stick with it, and the choice not to shift into any other perspective, but Luca just seemed this compelling... presence to me. I also think there was something liberating about knowing that there would be no possible autobiographical confusion. I am absolutely not a young dude from Broomfield, Colorado. I think so much of writing is about shedding self-consciousness, following intuition, and allowing yourself to be strange and odd. To dodge the expected thing. By that I don't mean that people were expecting something of me, I just mean, in the work itself. I want it to be unpredictable, surprising, which is to say honest, and perhaps the vehicle of a young man as narrator made it easier to do all those things, because it was already removed from me. I was already inhabiting something strange and different. I had a lot of fun being a dude for four years, my shadow life as a young man. It's an act of madness to inhabit another person, but a fun one. I think there's also narrative contrivances that are kind of inherent to fiction, and first-person can lay them bare in a way that's sometimes obvious and annoying, like, oh yes, I just happened to find this cache of letters or whatever. But sometimes it also makes the whole design clear in a striking way. Yeah. I think one of the reasons I deployed this frame narrative, in which he's 34 and recollecting being 23, is that it seemed a way of doing first-person with some of the benefits of third-person, in that there was a sort of authorial voice working through the immediate voice of the young man—in other words, a double consciousness to the narration. It seemed to offer a malleability, whereby I could keep shifting, even within the space of a sentence, between the more reflective, older Luca and the young Luca who’s gauche and ardent and overwhelmed by the world. I was thrown by that near-future vantage point. Was it always framed that way? You know, originally it was much further in the future, like, a moment of facing mortality. I couldn't make it work, it just seemed cheesy and overblown, and I was like, "Well, if this moment in his youth was so important, why would he only be telling the story now, when he's 85 or whatever?" I kept trying, but I couldn’t convince myself. And then I thought about The End of the Affair, where the distance between what has happened and the point of narration is narrower, and that seemed emotionally truthful. As in, enough has changed in Luca’s life that it feels like a different time, but there's still this intense emotional residue. It seemed more plausible that he would be revisiting this time and thinking about it. I guess I had this sense that he's narrativizing this moment almost in an exculpatory way, it's self-mythologizing while knowing, as this older man, that self-mythology is a feature of youth, and that way no wisdom lies. And there's the little echo of that original framework, one of your most extraordinary passages, in Luca's reverie of his own deathbed. Oh, yeah! I feel like I'm admitting all my secrets now, but that originally was just his deathbed, straight up. And of course it was so corny, I couldn’t make it honest. My best friend read this very bad passage and generously, helpfully said, "This is almost like his fantasy of himself," and I was like, "Wait a minute, that's what it is!" This is him writing a fantasy deathbed scene, badly. It's a kind of false ending, I guess, one to do with wishfulness and self-fashioning. Yeah, it definitely fits with the... gnarled masturbation that he does, literally and figuratively. That's an intense phrase. I don't think you're wrong, but wow, yeah [laughs]. I really treasure good writing about clubbing—I didn't fully appreciate all the uses of dance music until my early twenties, which I think is true of Kate in Neon in Daylight as well. And I loved that passage where she's idling against the edge of the club: “It was a wall she found, a sallow wall, damp with moisture, but as she set her back to it the floor started to tilt, gently, some sick tease. When she blinked, she wished she hadn’t: everything refracted and blurred, trailing echoes of itself, woozily haloed in gold.” Is that a similar experience that you had? Well not that precise experience, no, but also I hear you say that and I'm like, oh my God, I'm so old, once I did drugs and went to clubs [laughs]. Although I guess none of us have been doing that over the past year and a half—for very good reason. My experience was probably pretty standard for people of my demographic; I had ecstatic, revelatory-seeming nights, a few in London, many more in New York. New York always just felt way more fun to me than London, still does. Like, a greater sense of possibility: a spirit of optimism and permissibility, rather than the defeatism and inhibition I perhaps unfairly associate with the UK. That novel feels like ancient history to me now—it was very much a novel of my twenties—but I do remember that one of the things I was thinking about was intoxication, in all its forms. You know, what was real and what was cheap and illusory. If you have what feels like a transcendent experience and it's been induced by taking ecstasy, is that any less meaningful than something I'm more likely to do now, which is hike to the top of a mountain at dawn? Or not at dawn, I need my sleep. Anyway. I think the answer is no, they're both valid—but I'm sure you've seen this too, we probably know a lot of people, we probably love a lot of people, who have become trapped in intoxication. So I don't want to be sounding blithe about what can be life-limiting or even life-ruining, but I had fun [laughs]. I hope that fun may return to us at some point. I do miss dancing. With any kind of intoxication there's this delicate balance or tension between feeling embodied and feeling weightless. I was at this friend's going-away party a couple of weeks ago, you know, molly-fied, and I didn't realize how much I had missed standing with people outside, feeling the individual beads of sweat on your skin against your shirt, hearing the muffled pulse of music coming from inside. Yes! That's beautiful. And when all of that is aligned it's just the best feeling. I think that's when I feel most at home in a body. But when those are misaligned, you don't realize how awful you're being or stumbling around blackout drunk, rampaging, unaware of what you're doing— You're right, it's a delicate thing, and I have a horror of being insensitive to other people, which is probably why I haven't gone totally crazy on intoxication, because that's just the worst. But it's exciting to see how much is being written about in terms of psychedelics, it seems like so many people are coming round to the therapeutic effects, whether you're taking them recreationally or in a more controlled way. A friend of mine right now is doing this ketamine therapy in a totally legit, controlled way, and it seems transformative. I'm like, I need to do more psychedelics before I die. Mushrooms are legal in Colorado, so I should get on it [laughs]. Weren't they one of the first states to legalize weed as well? There's dispensaries, right? Yeah. Ben, my partner, sometimes jokes, "If my 16-year-old self could see me now, living in a place where weed is legal, he'd be so disappointed in me for not being totally baked every day." I think weed isn't cool here now because it's legal. The last time I went home to Canada, where's it's legal nationwide, there's signs at the airport like, "Please declare your weed paraphernalia." I think Canadian travel regulations are the most uncool you can possibly get, so. It would be great if all drugs are legalized in our lifetimes. I'm sounding like some kind of crazy drug advocate, but maybe I am [laughs]. I feel like the great ambivalence at the heart of Virtue is complicity—have you read The Line of Beauty, the Alan Hollinghurst novel? There's a line towards the end of it, where a member of the Tory MP's family the protagonist has been living with says, "We always supposed that you understood your responsibilities to us." Embracing somebody and throttling them at the same time. And the characters in your book, they don't have that sort of political power, or even all of the wealth, but they are very comfortable, very much ascendant in the culture industry. Absolutely. I guess I'm wondering, how do you think complicity operates in that particular world, as opposed to, like, "Yeah, I'm just hanging out with these grotesque plutocrats and Margaret Thatcher." It's really interesting that you say complicity. A novelist friend of mine read this book just before it was published, at the same time as Sally Rooney's novel [Beautiful World, Where Are You], and she's like, "You and me and Sally were all writing about the same thing! It's complicity!" I don’t mean to arrogantly align myself with Sally, who’s such a fucking genius! But what I mean is, I don't think you or my novelist friend are wrong. I guess one of the questions that was really driving me from the start with this (outside of the novel, too; it'll be troubling me for my whole life) is how to live an uncompromised life in such a deeply compromised world. And of course it's not possible. Like, here's my iPhone, people in China maybe died to make this. If we investigate almost any part of our lives, and follow the trail, it so often leads to subjugation and unconscionable crimes against humanity [laughs]. I don't mean my laughter to be glib, it's just the absurdity of—how do you try to be a good person when the world is set up in this way? Should Paula and Jason, if they actually care, just give away all their money? And I suppose this ties to the question of—I think Luca makes it explicit quite early on in the book—the small world and the big world. This is actually how you and I kind of started this conversation. If you're Peter Thiel, you make your small world, you retreat to your bunker and just look after yourself and adopt a fuck-everyone-else mentality. And that, of course, is pure hell on earth. I probably sound pathetically idealistic saying this, but I want us to live in a world of mutuality and care and community, one in which we all acknowledge and honor our interdependence. When the pandemic began I had such a naïve thought along these lines: that this global disaster would wake us up to our commonality. So the big question for me was, how much attention does one pay to the small world, the world you can manage, your immediates and your home and your small community, and how much do you look outward to the civic and the political and the national, the international. I think Zara has chosen the latter, she's on a mission and she can't really form close bonds because of that. Whereas Paula is like, "Well, I've got my kids, and it's up to me to bring up these kids and make my art and that's what I'm doing." Luca is torn between these choices. All of us could be doing more, but we also I think have a duty to our own happiness. Particularly in those first years of the last administration, there was just this constant feeling of, am I doing enough? I've set up my donation to the ACLU and RAICES, but could I afford more? Should I be volunteering more? If I miss a march to go see a movie, does that make me a bad person? So we're all complicit. I mean, maybe there are a few people living off the grid, that's not exactly complicity, but it is a refusal of the world. The challenge is to find a way to be in the world that doesn't feel so desperately morally compromising, and I don't know how to do that. I'm trying [laughs]. And a lot of these galleries and little magazines and other institutions love to say the right things even as they also love union-busting, or not paying their workers enough to live on. Totally, I know. Last summer all these huge companies were loudly proclaiming "we stand with Black Lives Matter" while quietly paying the women who clean their offices, predominantly women of color, below minimum wage. We live in such an age of presentationalism when it comes to politics, as in, “let’s make it look good”—never mind what's actually going on beneath the surface. Do you remember when one of the Whitney Museum's trustees got forced to resign, for being an evil—his police-equipment company was actually called Safariland, as if he were some pith-helmeted colonist. Several writers published a collective statement against him, with a line I just returned to: "The rapacious rich are amused by our piety, and demand that we be pious about their amusements." Mmm, that's a very good line. And I love how you describe that whole world in the first half of the novel, the countess who funds the little magazine and the elderly WASP editor. When you're writing things like that, obviously they're not precise analogues of anyone, but there's also a lot of... grist for that particular mill. Do you ever find yourself consciously filing details away...? Oh yeah, I'm just a glinty-eyed little magpie all the time. The crazy thing about fiction is that, by the time you've written it, you actually forget what was stolen from reality and what was purely invented, such lines become blurred. One friend sent me a beautiful email about the book, it's an email I will treasure, but I had forgotten that there is a scene—you know when they go to the square dance in Maine? I had totally forgotten that I'd sort of taken that from a real experience which I’d shared with her, not in Maine, the details changed. She said something like, "You were just hovering above it all the whole time," which is a nice thing to say, but it's slightly sinister too [laughs]. In transmuting reality into fiction, the fiction necessarily becomes more real to you than its originating material. My first years in New York, I was lucky in that my visa status was such that I couldn't work for American publications. So in a way this lent my social interactions a kind of... innocence, I guess? If I was talking to someone at a party, it wasn't like trying to get published in whatever magazine. I was just experiencing it in a slightly anthropological way, which I think all fiction writers do. It's fascinating to observe human beings. One part of Virtue I became slightly obsessed with was Luca's... sexual indeterminacy? Very well put, yeah. I had been describing him as a straight white guy, and then I was like, well, mostly straight. Straight-ish. There's that wonderfully oblique line about his later encounter inside the infinity room with the Japanese artist. It seems pretty clear that he's not straight, but maybe too much of his identity is bound up in that. Yet at the same time he's very clearly sexually obsessed with both halves of this artist couple. And they're kind of encouraging it, pushing and pulling. I guess I don't really have a question...? [laughs] Yeah, let's just talk about that [laughs]. Is that something that emerged while you were writing the book? I had a sense from the very beginning that he would be obsessed with these two. And then as it went on I wanted him to be more obsessed with Paula, or at least the sexual attraction was more pronounced with Paula, but that didn't preclude some sexual current between him and Jason. So often the choices, because these were choices, were about it not being precise. I didn't want anything to be simple. So I didn't want it to be that he's equally sexually attracted to these two people, I wanted his sexuality to be a little mysterious. I want it always to be complicated, uncertain, because that to me seems more truthful. That's the kind of fiction I want to read, mostly. I wanted to apply that principle to pretty much every character in every situation. For example, with Zara, she is this young woman of extraordinary principle who at one point rails against the heternormative beauty industrial complex, but I also wanted her to paint her toenails, you know? It's like, there are these minor, petty, inconsequential hypocrisies within her way of living, because she's a human being. Similarly, I wanted her to maybe be a little bit mean as well as smart. I wanted everyone to feel as real as they possibly could. And that, to me, felt like trying to dodge the received or the even vaguely stereotypical at every turn. But of course the problem with that is that you have to be believable, too, and I think it's a fine line to walk between cliché and the received on one hand, and the improbable or outlandish or completely unrelatable on the other. That was one of the many challenges [laughs]. I can't speak for straight people, but there's definitely couples that I know where—they're not inviting me to their beach house and I'm not becoming obsessed with them or anything, but I've definitely found myself going, am I attracted to both of you, or am I attracted to an idea of your life? Totally, exactly! I've had that too—it's like, I find you both sexy, but is what I'm finding sexy your couplehood, your life, or is it you as individuals? And very often I think it's the couplehood, two people who are really into each other and have extraordinary chemistry, they can often become attractive to you, because you kind of want to be them, I guess. Or at least be in on that energy in some way. I remember reading that Diane Arbus had this fantasy project where she would go into people's houses and photograph them while they slept. Or even when I'm catsitting, it's not like a fetishy thing, but I love seeing how other people live, you know? Oh my god, me too. When I was doing interviews, it would thrill me when the interview was at their house, because I'm just so curious. I interviewed Toni Morrison and I got there and I really needed to pee, and she was the warmest and realest, just a force of all that’s good. She was like, there's the bathroom or whatever, and I was like, oh my God, I'm in Toni Morrison's bathroom. But it didn't need to be Toni Morrison, it's not that she was Toni Morrison, it's just that thrill of being in someone else's space, seeing how other people live. I think that's what drives me as a novelist, the fascination with other people. I'm just ravenously nosy all the time. Do you think if Luca ran into either half of that couple individually, would he still have become obsessed in the same way? I think not to the same degree. It is about the heat of them as a couple, as well as who they are individually. It's almost like, the whole domesticity of it feels very conventional on one hand, but then there's the third party making everything faintly perverse. Absolutely. I think you kind of alluded to this earlier: he dynamizes their relationship. They're getting off on knowing that he's awed by or attracted to the two of them. The erotics are triangular. There's that passage where he feeds a handheld ice cream to Paula... Oh yeah, I wrote "Magnums," and my wonderful editor Cal was like, with a little blushing face in the margins, "Do we need to specify ice cream, not condoms?" He's simultaneously wrapped up in the physical response and watching it happen. Exactly. That's narration, right? To traduce Wordsworth, it's horniness recollected in tranquility. This goes back to what we were saying about the dual voice, the simultaneity of the self and the narrated self. Virtue uses Cy Twombly's paintings as semaphore for the flush of infatuation. What elicited that association for you? Is there any other art hanging over the novel in a similar way? So, this will sound like a bafflingly oblique answer, but I often think of John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about Whitney Houston. It was just a brief thing after she died, and at some point in this highly thoughtful, intelligent piece of critical appreciation, he says something like, “her voice was so good.” The sentence is that simple, unadorned and, in a way, gorgeously thoughtless. It seemed to be a humble recognition of the way in which some things—certain paintings, infatuation itself, the miracle of Whitney’s voice—are beyond intellection. A person can cerebrate over abstract art, for example—a worthy enterprise!—but when they get in a room with a Twombly canvas they might discover thinking goes out the window. The novels I love most are dynamized by this tension, between the felt and the thought. What are you working on right now? I'm working on... well, I hope it becomes a novel. Right now it’s just a messy Word doc, so I feel a bit superstitious about declaring it to be a third novel, but I hope that's what it becomes. It involves a British man who becomes a Hollywood actor…
‘We’re All Living Through Their Civil War’: An Interview with Peter Mitchell

Talking to the author of Imperial Nostalgia about the complex British relationship to class, culture war diversions, and toppling statues.

Shortly after local activists sent a statue of slaver-merchant Edward Colston tumbling into Bristol Harbour on June 7, 2020, The Daily Telegraph interviewed Nigel Biggar, a monkish conservative and theology professor at Oxford’s Christ Church College, who complained: “It’s not fashionable to stand up for the British Empire.” Biggar has spent the past few years doing precisely that, with a speciality in apologetics for the diamond magnate and Napoleonic megalomaniac Cecil Rhodes; his statue still looms above Oxford’s High Street, a tribute to the machinations that warped southern Africa. Peter Mitchell’s new book, Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves (Manchester University Press), critiques this reactionary vogue, moving from right-wing fury against seditious university students to the literary-political construction of the “imperial wonder boy,” always naively worldly, born to rule over some distant undetermined land. Mitchell excavates the battlefield beneath today’s culture warriors, showing how Oxford itself became a storehouse of colonial knowledge, and how imperial historiography was created by obscure Victorians like George Birdwood, an expert on Indian handicrafts who nonetheless declared the subcontinent was incapable of high art. (“[A] boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionless purity and serenity of soul,” he dismissed one Buddha statue at the time.) How to unravel these faerie glamours, to disenchant their dream-castles? “Nostalgism’s political trajectory is apocalyptic,” Mitchell writes. “It tends towards mythical return, purgative violence and fantasies of a transcendently renewed state: Odysseus’s massacre of the suitors on a grand scale.” Chris Randle: Can you talk about the whole project that inspired this book? Peter Mitchell: What interested me was, as I think I say at the beginning of the book, I was working on a project about the British Empire, kind of on the way to becoming a historian of the British Empire, in 2016 when the Brexit referendum happened. And I think the Brexit referendum is a symptom rather a cause of anything, but I was feeling that it's only really new to comfortable white people that certain violences are continual, are terrifying—I was well aware by 2016 that there was a new reactionary wave in what I guess we have to call the West, and the role of imperial history and the imperial imaginary within that, especially in Britain and in England, really concerned me. I never really became an academic, but in my PhD I had worked on the empire's own creation of a mythical past, the way empire itself rehearsed certain historical scripts. I'm fascinated by the twin tracks of research in the book, where you're simultaneously looking at the historiography of imperialism alongside these present-day reactionary bleatings. What was your whole process like with that? I'm not sure that it actually worked that well, but one intervention I wanted to make, and the one intervention that I think should be made more forcefully, is that the past also has a past. Reactionary movements tend to produce pasts as stable entities, without violent and odd and conflicted relationships with themselves or with the past that they themselves have to deal with and negotiate. The tropes that come up in public discourse about the Empire include stuff like, "No one would've had these kinds of opinions back then." And you're like, well, which back then is this? You assume a historical time outside time, in which certain things just weren't in contention, when people knew where they fit in. And of course that's the whole structure of nostalgia, that the past is a place in which you would have known who you were, and you would've known who everyone else was, and in reality no one ever has. I thought that was important, a really basic point that people other than me probably made more interestingly once, but an important thing for people to reckon with in approaching how the culture war relates to history, so they're not seduced by reaction. To understand that the past has always been contingent, that there's no actual, empirically verifiable past to which one adds politics as a kind of overlay. Approaching this stuff now, you could say, "That's nostalgia," the connotation being that nostalgia never existed until now, as if there wasn't this way of relating to the past until now. So during the pandemic here when we had our absolutely demented mass nostalgization of VE Day, it was like, why are we so weird about this, people weren't so weird back then. People were weird about the past in 1945. People were really weird about the past in 1945 [laughs]. And in 1875. And when Cecil Rhodes was alive. Cecil Rhodes was a fucking lunatic about the past! The imperial nostalgists and apologists of today would be knocked into a cocked hat by how insane Cecil Rhodes was about the past. I was familiar with the whole idea of the invention of tradition, partly from that Tom Nairn book [The Enchanted Glass] about the monarchy, where he mentions how many supposedly ancient royal traditions were invented by the Windsors to seal their legitimacy. But you delve into figures I'd never heard of, like George Birdwood, or the absurdly named Francis Younghusband, who anticipated Boris Johnson: "Oh dear, I seem to have blundered into invading Tibet and ransacking all of their treasures." And interestingly, because of this particular cultural moment, [Younghusband] later becomes a racially charged kind of syncretist "Eastern mystic." He gets really into symbologies and how Man will attain the Godhead. There's actually a mistake in the book, where I'm writing later about Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of various John Buchan thrillers, saying he's always meeting his adversary in a high mountain pass and gazing into his eyes and finding the measure of the man. That's not fiction—I had that mixed up with Younghusband in real life. He met his Russian counterpart in a tent and they drank loads of vodka and sized each other up. I was wondering, as somebody who's gone through a ton of this stuff now, how much of the historiography of empire is still informed by these people? Obviously there's been a big counter-movement over decades, but... I'm not totally confident answering that because I’m not a professional imperial historian; there's far better people to ask. But, as it should be, this is a really fertile time for imperial history as it's practiced here and in the U.S. and elsewhere. The scale of the work being done is really impressive. Obviously the historical profession has its own problems of entry qualifications and social makeup, which aren't being helped by certain structural issues in higher education, but history seems to be doing pretty well. There's all this stuff generating noise and energy—I think it's an exciting time to be an imperial historian in a university at the minute. And I think we have to remember that out of the loudest voices in the profession who're doing imperial apologetics, very few of them are really professional historians anymore. They're just not in the game. Niall Ferguson long ago gave up being a historian to become a kind of jester in the court of the powerful. [laughing as a cat named George saunters over to the laptop] That cat's massive. One of the points you make is that the British Empire never really had mass popularity behind it—I thought of Joseph Chamberlain's "Imperial Preference" scheme, which is so fantastically obscure now. It was sort of Chamberlain's attempt to resolve the inherent tensions between cosmopolitan capitalism and jingoistic nationalism. And it just didn't work. It flew apart. In one of Stuart Hall's essays about Thatcherism he talks about how she translated this arcane, freakishly niche ideology into a popular idiom that spoke to people. How do you see the ideas and images of empire being used in that way today? Well, that's the whole book really, isn't it [laughs]. Maybe to be more specific, do you see any cases of that breaking down? In the book you mention British working-class support for the Morant Bay rebellion, and something like the toppling of Edward Colston's statue feels reminiscent of that. It's hard to say because what I'm writing about, or writing against, is a very few writers for certain newspapers and a very few members of the Conservative Party. I'm writing against an attempt by an elite to create a structure of feeling out of a variety of—obviously they'd like to hope it's already there for them to conjure up, but it's not, people's natural relationship with the past is far more mysterious and inchoate than we think. And the only way to point out what it is, especially in a country where access to the means of representation and argumentation is as unequally distributed as this one, is to float a proposition and see whether people rise to it. I've just been reading a cover article from The Spectator a couple weeks ago about how the National Trust has lost the nation's trust. And it's just absolutely fucking bonkers. But the idea is, can I make your property-owning granddad angry enough by telling him that the National Trust has been taken over by Black Marxist revolutionaries who want to murder him for being white? The only way to find out if you can do that is to do it. And to some extent it works and to some extent it doesn't. The question is, is it enough to keep him voting Conservative until he dies? Is there some way you can convey the operations of British media to outsiders? In the U.S. there's Fox News, but only a small fraction of the country actually watches that. I guess it's a similar audience of older, white, propertied classes giving themselves black tar heroin. We have a really, really complex relationship to class here. The map of class stratification between who reads The Times and The Daily Telegraph and who reads the Daily Mail and who below that reads The Sun and the Express is really complicated and really tiring to navigate—but all of these papers work together in advancing a reactionary agenda that takes a lot from the States. We’ve learnt a lot from the States, especially in terms of how to prosecute a culture war, since the Nixon revolution. But the other half of it we get from Central Europe, from the French Front National, from the AfD in Germany, from Orbán in Hungary and [Andrzej] Duda in Poland. I think we're increasingly seeing the influence of a European tradition of blood-and-soil nationalism. We're not settler colonists, we're the real thing, and I think the new New Right here, whatever you want to call it, is getting better at understanding that and consolidating those narratives. How it works in terms of elections is that a lot of this media exists to keep the proportion of the country that votes and owns property voting for, if not for the Conservative Party, then voting against any redistributive politics. As is the case in the States as well, the demographic that's held the balance of electoral power since the Second World War is about to leave the stage ... There's no one central idea, a lot of this stuff is more chaotic than its creators would like to imagine, but the central thrust of it is to manufacture a politics of resentment, and to drive progressive and left-wing and class-based race and gender politics out of the acceptable mainstream. And that worked, we saw it work with Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned a lot in the 2019 general election, and the biggest divide wasn't between white and black or rich and poor, it was between people who owned property and people who didn't. People who owned property were like, "Oh, I've always voted Labour, but I just don't know, it's just, mm." It's like, something's clearly stuck here—there's a sense taken hold that something is just not quite right about these fairly unambitious social-democratic redistributionist politics. And actually so much of the libeling of Corbyn preyed on his anti-colonial politics. I feel like he didn't even talk about Palestine that much after becoming leader, but there was also his IRA sympathies, or like, "look at the Old Fool publicly caring about the Chagos Islanders again." Venezuela came up every day of the election cycle. Up here in Newcastle, local Conservative candidates were saying, “The Labour candidate will turn Newcastle East into Venezuela-on-Tyne” [laughs]. Corbyn’s association with Diane Abbott, the fact that they used to go out with each other... that stuff about how he went to Jamaica and came back as an anti-colonialist. He went native in the wrong way, which I think has power especially because he's from a privileged class of English boy, and he went to a private school. That kind of acculturation is supposed to be a prophylactic against the seductions of the colony. Half of the drama of the colonial mission arises from when those boundaries fail to be policed. With the British media I also think of that combination of prurience and moralism, like, simultaneously nursing this Epstein-like obsession with teenage girls and raving about "gender ideology." This is something I've noticed a bit about universities. Someone on Twitter the other day was like, "The press has a hell of a weird interest in what happens in student common rooms." They like to put the gendered and often not-white bodies of the students on the front pages of their papers, scour people’s social media for pictures of them looking particularly nubile, make you hate students but want to shag them too. I mean, the trans thing is obviously incredibly prurient—these people are completely obsessed with people’s undercarriages. Really odd. Maybe that is more of an English thing, what with our humour that's constantly in the toilet. On the cliffs at the end of my street someone has carved an enormous pictograph of a cock—you know, with a big bulbous end et cetera—out of the living rock. We’re not necessarily any more insane than other cultures, but the precise lineaments of our insanity are, uh, interesting. That dovetails with your chapter about the essential boyishness of the imperial adventurer—to me the phrase "the Great Game" is so revealing of that, an endless series of intrigues and skirmishes and mini-invasions that killed many thousands of actual people, but to the occupiers it was all a jape. I forget who said this, it was some leftist academic type, but they had a tweet about how the main theme of 21st-century politics is impunity. Obviously there's Boris Johnson, where he can do almost anything and then skate away, because of his class affect— There was that amazing moment during the election campaign where the other party leaders got interviewed, they'd all agreed to it, and then they were like, "So, now it's Boris Johnson's turn." And he just went, no, fuck you, I don't care, I'm Boris Johnson, I’m not doing it. I think that's right about impunity. And so much of that imperial-wonder-boy stuff is bound up with a kind of fetishized fragility. I've just been reading Time's Monster by Priya Satia, about the different stages and cultures of British imperialism and their own histories, and it's fantastic. She writes about Lawrence of Arabia, where he's such a fragile little boy even when he's doing a massacre. He's so sad after he murders a guy that they have to lift him up into his camel's saddle, he's just too weak to do it himself. He's having an attack of the vapours because of all the people he’s killed. But the fragility is a function of the impunity, in a way: he gets to dispense violence, be feted for how daring it was, how sensitive, how beautifully described in the most delicate prose, and then he goes home and gets killed much later in a mysterious accident, because someone that magical can only die by intrigue or suicide. "If you'd been any prettier, they would've called it Florence of Arabia," Noel Coward said to Peter O'Toole after the film came out. One of the other themes of that chapter in your book is the winnowing of that whole class or sub-class, like, Rory Stewart is out of a job now. Jacob Rees-Mogg is obviously an important figure in the Conservative Party, but even now I can't imagine him ever becoming leader. He's useful for his role, which is to model a certain affect, a certain kind of political theatre that he provides. And I think the Tories are getting better at using him for that. Whether he's conscious of it is another question. And I'm sure Rory Stewart will be around for the rest of our natural lives. One of the things I always want to say about culture-war stuff is that single interventions, single figures, are diversions in a way from the main thing being communicated. Take that Nigel Biggar guy that I spend a chapter on. He's not interesting, nothing he says is interesting, none of the debates he engages in are really worth engaging in. It's what he channels, the larger structure of feeling that he enables you to access, that's important. So, you know, there'll be plenty more Rory Stewarts; there are thousands in waiting. Rees-Mogg is useful because he's such an oddity, but you could make a version of him out of pipe cleaners and plonk it in the House of Commons and have it occasionally squawk a few words of Latin and it would have the same effect. And Boris Johnson, he's very happy to draw on these tropes, these structures of feeling. What I find amazing about him is the way his appetites continue to grow. That Billy Bunter thing where he's always snaffling the pie from the window ledge. It just gets bigger and bigger with him, it doesn't seem to stop. The more you put in front of him the more he eats, and he'll eat until he bursts. He just can't have enough, and he doesn't know why he wants it. It's a Homer Simpson thing, and it's impossible not to kind of love, like having a stupid dog. Unfortunately your stupid dog is also an authoritarian who would happily see you dead if you can’t supply his needs. I think that's why there's these perpetual intrigues to get rid of him. Maybe not right now, since the Labour Party is being fully Pasokified, but there's this sense that he's just too slippery, a little bit too much of a libertine, not really the ideal figure to usher in managed democracy. Yeah, he doesn't work hard enough. I'm not really a political commentator, but I don't think we should ever underestimate the extent to which the Conservative Party is a riven organization, and what this country has been living through for the past five or ten years isn't so much a crisis of political democracy as a crisis of the Conservative Party. We're all living through their civil war. But it's a fascinating organization, because we have a hereditary ruling class and that ruling class has a party that's spent the balance of the past century in power. And that makes for a very odd kind of democracy, and an absolutely bonkers culture given that the ruling class also pretty much oversees that culture. Yeah, like, I believe the UK is still the most regionally unequal nation in western Europe. Yep. And you can see that in Rory Stewart, when he talks about his travels, and the way that for him the field of the regional isn't really that far away from the field of the colonial. Is he in a working men’s club in Easington or is he at a wedding in Kandahar? Who knows? What’s the difference? It's all territory to be mapped and conquered. There's that Victorian ethnography you dig up, which was written like a Quillette article or something. It's talking about the "negresence" of northerners and the Irish. Yeah, exactly. I worry that I’m stretching a thesis a bit, and being a bit too deterministic about how the colonial gaze gets turned on Britain's fringes, which are also its "heartlands," when that’s convenient. But it does, you know? Beyond anything else, it’s easily mapped out in the sense that some people exist to act and some people exist to be acted upon. And people especially in the North exist to be acted upon, in much the same way that people on the colonial periphery did. It's different, of course, because we have the privilege of whiteness, but as I say in that chapter, some whitenesses are more provisional than others, and sometimes our whiteness is extremely useful for underwriting the white supremacy of people who'd rather not say it with their whole chest. That's one of the things that's annoyed me more than anything else in politics over the past few years: whenever someone in London wants to say something racist or transphobic, they'll invent an imaginary working-class friend from where I'm from. What was that one reactionary-safari piece in The Guardian? With the artisanal pizzeria owner who was also a landlord? Oh, the pizza guy! He was a landlord business owner, but his opinions were properly working class because they were reactionary! I adored him. I think there's limits to how useful these anecdotes are, but I spent election day 2019 in Stockton South, which we lost, under the Labour MP who got parachuted into Hartlepool a few weeks ago and had his arse handed to him [laughs]. And in Stockton South there's loads of people who've been driven mad by the Daily Mail and they're nuts and they're racist, but also loads of people who Labour traditionally didn't really think about—they’d count on having their votes but keep it on the down-low, or assume they wouldn’t vote at all—who were absolutely red-hot for Corbyn. It was when I went round the estates, kind of out-of-town, not a lot of amenities, but they're for people who own property, and they want to own a nice house that has some Doric pillars on the porch and enough space for two cars and a garage. And everyone who answered the door there wanted me to know that they've always voted Labour until now. This is obviously part of the reactionary script in this country, everyone's always voted Labour until this one point where they've gone too far, which is now. They've probably been saying that for 30 years. But these guys were serious about their working-class identity, and I'm not going to question that. And they weren’t wrong to look at me in the certain way that you look at some dickhead who grew up with books in the house and went to university down south, because I am that dickhead and I did go down south. They were basically telling me that they couldn't possibly, as working-class people, as people who knew what's what, they couldn't possibly support this kind of stuff, it might be all right for the likes of me. I kind of wanted to say, "I made 12 grand last year and I live in a room where I can't stand up straight in London. You live in a house with Doric pillars on the front porch." One of your favourite phrases in this book is "the imaginary," which I like a lot as well. Do you see a counter-imaginary happening at all, against these zombies of empire? This is one particular historical imaginary that's been activated, and to some extent conjured and created, by reactionary politics. But there's absolutely shitloads of counter-imaginaries, it's one of a whole galaxy of them in this country. All historical imaginaries are nostalgic to an extent, but there's other nostalgias, like the welfare-state nostalgia we have, if you've seen Ken Loach's film The Spirit of '45. I find it dismaying, but a lot of Corbynism was based on, like: "Remember 1945 to '48, when we created the welfare state? That was great!" And the post-war utility aesthetic. Remember the war, but in a socialist way. We have our mythologies about the International Brigades—it's not a hugely widespread mythology here, but if you know about the International Brigades in this country, it's likely that you think they were a good thing. I remember going to university and talking with someone who said, "Well, some people went to fight for Franco, and they were good chaps too," and just being absolutely horrified, because I'd never come across that before, because it was so unusual to hear someone speak about the Spanish Civil War in a way that didn’t come from the left. We have the whole British-leftist political imaginary going back to the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War, the Levellers and the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. So there's a leftist historical pantheon and heroic narrative, we have those traditions as well. I imagine there are emergent traditions from immigrant communities that I'm mostly not aware of. And a lot of our best art and writing over the past century has been about presenting counter-imaginaries like that. I was helping a mate the other day with an article about northern literature, and we ended up talking about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer. His whole project was to stake out another imaginary that would counter the imperial British one. I've just watched a bunch of short films by Ayo Akingbade, which are all micro-histories of Black British people, both formally and politically radical. With cinema, like the Colston statue, I feel like there's a reason so many people were simultaneously horrified or galvanized by that, because it was such a dreamlike—this fact of the landscape just toppling into the water. It was a really emotional moment over here. How much coverage did it get in the States? It's hard to say, because so much of it happened via social media, and I never watch, like, cable news, but it was all over. People were joyously losing their minds here as well. I think there's an expectation, certainly on the part of people who pay for statues and have them commissioned, that they're not to be questioned. Even in Toronto where I'm from, there's this university called Ryerson, which is named after a Macaulay-like figure, Egerton Ryerson. They just pulled him down, didn't they? Yeah! He was one of the main architects of the residential school system, which is back in the news in Canada now after the discovery of these mass graves. Hundreds of children. So the university is gesturing towards changing its name, and meanwhile a bunch of people surreptitiously took his own statue and dumped it into Lake Ontario. The university was like, "Yeah, we're not going to replace it." What sort of recent historiography or books or other interventions would you suggest for people to read if they wanted to delve further into this, the question of empire? There's loads coming out right now—my book is in the middle of a huge splurge of stuff. It depends what it's for? The journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who's a really cool guy, he's written a book called Empireland for the general reader. It's kind of like, if your dad has been going on about mad students taking down statues, this is the book to give him. So it'll probably do more good than anyone else's book in the entire field, in terms of working against the ways reaction captures people, and meeting them where they are. Alex von Tunzelmann is publishing a really good book called Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History. Priya Satia’s book that I mentioned before, Time’s Monster, basically does what my book just about barely attempts, but on a grand scale, and about a million times better than I ever could. Obviously anyone wanting to understand race and history in contemporary Britain has to read Paul Gilroy, and I’ve always loved Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolphe Trouillot. The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks is really good, really emotional and challenging, and sort of visionary in how it approaches the museums issue. I was genuinely troubled by it, in good ways. I really want to read that one, partly because it seems like the culture industry is such a redoubt of people who are—not unapologetic Nigel-Biggar-style imperialists, more like, "It's very bad that all these things happened, and we're going to sponsor a workshop or something, but please don't make us give back our looted treasures." There's a book called White Innocence by Gloria Wekker, from the Netherlands, which is just about a perfect explication, albeit in a different national context, of what's at stake in all this. I think what's really important for people to read isn't so much about the empire—I mean, obviously we need to know more about it—but as I try to make clear in this book, most of the time it's not even about that, that's just the thing it's being hung on. What we need, and this is something that comes down to the level of school curricula, is historiographical literacy, for people to understand how the past is used and what it's for. It's not just there being true, it's a political object that's always in contention. And for that there's classics like Raphael Samuel, like, everyone could do with reading Raphael Samuel. Patrick Wright is a writer who's still around, his book On Living in an Old Country is a selection of essays from the '80s, from the last moment like this under Thatcherism, the beginning of the heritage industry. He talks about how British history, Queen Elizabeth I and the Mary Rose, get mashed together into a lovely reactionary stew, with which to underwrite, in that case, a Hayekian neoliberal revolution that completely reconfigured society. Owen Hatherley’s book The Ministry of Nostalgia is really good, about the particular nostalgic fetish of austerity that took hold in the early 2010s. I wish all these books were more dated than they are, but there you go, they’re not, and whatever’s good in my own book I stole from them. I think it's important to have examples of how to read things, because I'm not a proper historian, I'm not really a historiographer, I'm definitely not a theorist, but all my degrees are in English literature and the only thing I'm really useful for is being able to read a thing try to describe it. So this is a book not necessarily about empire, but about how to read things, how to think about the past.