K Paoletter 16: Mind's Eye

November 26th, 2019


Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Thousand Cranes begins with a memory: Running late to a tea ceremony organized by Chikako, the friend and onetime lover of his father, Kikuji remembers the strange birthmark on the woman’s chest that he glimpsed as a child. “It covered half the left breast and ran down into the hollow between the breasts, as large as the palm of one’s hand,” Kawabata writes, “Hair seemed to be growing on the purple-black mark, and Chikako was in the process of cutting it.”

An indelible sight— especially for a boy of only eight or nine. While rarely so sexually charged, such grotesque memories do have a salience that more benign ones often lack. When I was a kid, a friend of mine captured an enormous grasshopper in a plastic bag and proudly showed it off to me while we were playing in the woods that surrounded his house. It had a thick, bulbous body, colored richly with streaks of purple and green. Because it was encased in plastic, the thing was surely dying, and had become slicked with shining goo. I told him to let it go. Whether or not he did... that part is lost to history.

Rapt by the enduring sway such moments can hold over the imagination, Kawabata rushes through the events of Thousand Cranes only to circle back and linger on a few frozen instants. When a young woman Chikako is determined to set him up with arrives at Kikuji’s home, Kawabata chooses only to describe the first glimpse Kikuji gets of her on the veranda. Immediately after, Kawabata jumps forward to the next day in order to narrate the scene between Kikuji and the girl, Yukiko, retrospectively, a move that allows him to dispense with most of their stilted conversation in lieu of potent images like that of Yukiko’s figure against “the deep, subdued color” of an interior wall. In this way, Kawabata stretches time, reorienting his book not around the procession of one event into another, but instead to the unruly operation of the mind.

However pleasant the memory of Yukiko’s silhouette, the other images from the evening are swiftly subsumed by an unwelcome fantasy of Kikuji’s father erotically nibbling on Chikako’s birthmark. Later on, when Chikako returns to inform Kikuji that his indecision about Yukiko has led her to marry someone else, he finds himself strangely unable to call up a memory of her face, even as “the impression was still vivid of the shoulders and the long kimono sleeves, and the hair too, radiant in light though the paper doors.” Still, Kawabata writes, “Yukiko’s eyes and cheeks were abstract memories, like impressions of light; and the memory of that birthmark on Chikako’s breast was concrete as a toad.”

In Kawabata’s imagining, the odd mechanism at work here may simply be the tendency of the unsavory to overshadow everything else. Professional athletes who have won a championship often talk about how their triumph is experienced as an indistinguishable whir, while the moments of defeat that led up to the gleeful celebration can be pictured vividly years later. “Perhaps people were progressively harder to paint in the mind as they were near one, loved by one,” Kawabata writes, “Perhaps clear memories came easily in proportion as they were ugly.”

The notion that ugly stands apart is somewhat similar to the logic that pervades most mystery novels. As the author scatters clues throughout the early chapters of the book, one or two are given special attention, foreshadowing the detective’s inevitable return to them later on once the red herrings have been examined and discarded. Such clues are not ugly in the sense of a hairy birthmark, but they are at least distinguishable in the way that a pretty face might not be.

Breaking down the world into good clues and bad clues may make for an engrossing Agatha Christie novel, but it’s hardly an adequate representation of reality. Conversely there’s work like Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map, which functions as a mystery novel even as it uses techniques similar to Kawabata’s to demonstrate the improbability of a single clue breaking the case. In that book, Abe’s detective is given a single object at the outset of his search for a man who has been missing for six months: “a half-used box of matches from some coffee house.” The first report he files is his investigation of “the origin of the matchbox;” it lasts for about a page, and leads to nothing. Immediately afterward, Abe reverts to prose, deepening the previously dry recitation of observations with the much more subjective effort of gathering them. Just as the meat of Thousand Cranes is revealed almost entirely through memory, Abe realizes that while a police procedural might rely on the facts and figures, a novel works best when it’s focused instead on what it feels like to look for them.

Both books’ protagonists come to operate under the assumption that some insight might be gleaned from the endless probing of a single image, a single object. Abe’s detective notices that the matchbook he’s been given includes both black- and white-headed matches. For chapters on end, he treats this realization like a break in the case, speculating wildly over where the other matches could have come from. Kikuji, similarly, becomes beholden to Chikako’s birthmark. During one of the woman’s visits, “he could see that Chikako was wearing a white crape singlet under her kimono. Even if it had been daylight he could not have seen through to the birthmark; but it was there before him, all the more distinct for the darkness.”

Both symbols are, ultimately, meaningful only in so far as they reflect the psyche of the character who is so focused on them. The mismatched matches prove only the impossibility of the task Abe’s detective is faced with; the birthmark stands in for Kikuji’s lingering anger over his father’s philandering. In the latter case, that simmering emotion proves an insurmountable barrier to Kikuji finding love for himself— no matter what, the birthmark remains top of mind, proving something vague and powerful to him about his own inability to be a good husband. So it goes. The image sticks, concrete as a toad— or a grasshopper— altering life wildly out of proportion with the thing, the moment, itself.

I’ve had two features published since my last newsletter: a lambasting of how the frothy-mouthed fandoms of Star Wars, Marvel, and the rest have managed to conquer pop culture for The Baffler, as well as a report on Harvard’s plans to vastly expand its footprint in Allston Rock City for Boston. Elsewhere, I reviewed the bedeviling first novel by the great experimental short story writer Susan Steinberg for The Nation, took a withering look at the press’ blind embrace of the think tank industrial complex for Components, and argued that Disney+ is the streaming platform for people who don’t actually care what they’re watching for Fatherly.

If you, like me, are dimly aware of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua but don’t actually know the history, I highly recommend checking out “Revolution Revisited,” a special, four-part podcast series from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. See, the Watson Institute hosted a number of the principals from the revolution at a conference last year and my great pal Dan Richards took the opportunity to interview them about their experiences. The result could be called This Nicaraguan Life, a riveting story of how the promise of a liberal government by and for the people gave way to the dictatorship that prevails there today. You can listen on Soundcloud or find “Revolution Revisited” in the feed for the Watson Institute’s Trending Globally podcast on whichever app you prefer.

Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me at my website, or white-knuckling it on the Mass Pike as I face down the holiday traffic on the way into the wilderness.

Your pal,


K Paoletter 15: Gold Harps on the Side

August 29th, 2019


“Dear dirty Dublin” hasn’t been so in some time. Far from the gritty, working-class town of Joyce’s or even Heaney’s day, by some measures Dublin is now the most expensive city in all the European Union to live in, and is only growing more so as financial services firms fleeing London and Brexit keep alighting there. Even in a non-figurative sense, Dublin has been cited as “cleaner than European norms.” Odd, then, that this new Dublin, sanitized and capital friendly, should have birthed Fontaines D.C., as incendiary a rock band as has emerged in recent years. Despite playing the sort of bedraggled post-punk most associated with ‘80s college radio, the band has been profiled widely by magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, appeared on the Tonight Show, and their debut album, Dogrel, even cracked the top ten of Billboard’s chart in the UK.

In an age that has seen guitar-driven music ebb to the furthest periphery of pop culture, a new rock outfit finding any kind of mass audience— let alone an international one— is no small feat. Much of the appeal of the group seems to be in how they fuse their throwback sound with the famed Irish literary tradition. The story goes that after meeting as classmates at a music academy in Dublin, the five bandmates-to-be bonded over Yeats and Joyce. “They’d go to pubs and pass a shared notebook around the table,” the New York Times wrote in its profile of the band last month, “they self-published chapbooks and slipped them into bookstores. They put on readings with other writers, including a soap salesman-poet they met in Sweny’s, the drugstore that features in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Such writerly affectations only cemented the band’s commitment to distilling the energy of the Irish capital into music (to whit, the “D.C.” in the band’s name stands for “Dublin City”). As frontman Grian Chatten told Stereogum, “There’s so much poetry innately in the colloquialisms of people in Ireland. You don’t really have to strive to speak poetically if you’re speaking in the Dublin lingo, you know? It’s just impossible to live in that and not churn it out.”

At the same time, the antecedents of the music that accompanies that churn is not hard to grasp. On the Tonight Show, bassist Conor Deegan sported the same Velvet Underground t-shirt he wore in the choppy, home-spun video for the single “Too Real.” The hard-edged, maundering sound the Velvets injected into the veins of rock in the late ‘60s is everywhere on Dogrel. Their guitar work alternates between crunchy power chords and sliding, atmospheric licks; a clatter of drums and symbols is always lurking, ready to surge to the forefront. The result is eleven precisely tailored tracks, each one veering from one musical idea to another in order to speak a piecemeal truth about feeling down and out in an ascendent city.

Though “Liberty Belle” is the album’s hair-raising standout, “Too Real,” is probably more representative of their approach to songwriting. It opens with a boppy riff that, with a half-hearted holler from Chattan, explodes into a classic wash of drums that drop just as quickly away into a uneasy backbeat. The group swerves between headyness and disillusionment in that minute or so of instrumentation, an emotional tug-of-war that’s channeled by Chattan when he sings, “None can revolution lead with selfish needs aside, as it stands, I’m about to make a lot of money.” Even the chopped up syntax of this lyric reinforce the muddiness of the politics here— the only clear takeaway is that last bit.

As the song continues, Fontaines D.C.’s literary ambitions become more clear. After the chorus, Chattan pivots into a more legible mode, but does so only by cribbing from T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” singing,

The winter evening settles down

the bruised and beat up open sky, six o’clock

The city in its final dress

And now a gusty shower wraps the grimy scraps of withered leaves all about your feet

And then the wringing of a twitching hand

Six o’clock, six o’clock

This passage is little more than a flight of fancy; the next verse echoes the first, again destabilized by that backbeat and the guitars that rise over it, mimicking slide-whistles. Vague notions of revolution are dashed against an image of a city exhausted by labor, all of it swallowed again by that refrain: “I’m about to make a lot of money.” “Is it too real for ya?” Chatten asks again and again as the song concludes. “Is it too real?”

Money, it turns out, is as deeply woven into Fontaines D.C.’s music as poetry, even if it’s the latter component that has drawn the most notice. “Money is the sandpit of the soul” becomes the refrain for “Chequeless Reckless”; in “The Lotts,” Chatten sketches out an interaction between a beggar “looking for a few coins” and a passer-by who asks him, “What you want, son? Manger for the evening or a presidential run?” Even on the album’s opening number, “Big,” Chattan’s chorus of “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big” is easily read as much as an aspiration for wealth as for fame.

The way Fontaines D.C. attacks the concept of money feels more pathological than how the rock bands of earlier generations did. The over-the-top irony of the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Money” feel even derpier now (“Money, get back. I’m alright, Jack, keep your hands off my stack”) than even its cash register intro does, and the maudlin suspicion Patti Smith bring to the subject on “Free Money” verges on patronizing (“Find a ticket, win a lottery. Every night before I rest my head, see those dollar bills go swirling ‘round my bed”). Fontaines D.C. are hardly capitalist boosters—“money is the sandpit of the soul” after all— but they do come across as more honest about the central role money plays in their lives, and in the city they call home. That’s what I mean by pathological: not that the band has some Freudian fixation on wealth, but that they have internalized money as a foundational force shaping their world.

Disdaining money while aspiring to rake it in in bales, as earlier groups might have, is so obviously disingenuous that a band as principled as Fontaines D.C. seems to be would hardly be able to stomach the contradiction. They even begin “Chequeless Reckless” with the proclamation, “A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money.” The way to avoid being a sell-out, I guess, isn’t to not pursue money, but rather to just be upfront about it.

Hearing the label “sell-out” spat out with such disgust in 2019 is a bit destabilizing. Setting aside Fontaines D.C.’s disdain for hypocrisy, selling out has long since ceased to even be an act worth being hypocritical about— selling out is the whole point! The ethics espoused in the early ‘90s by another clear Fontaines D.C. inspiration, Fugazi— wherein the cover price for shows was initially capped at $5— appear deeply out-moded in the streaming era, where touring is the only way a musician can hope to make a decent living.

Even if millions of Spotify users were streaming the tracks on Dogrel every month, that would only translate into a couple thousand bucks for the band to split up five ways. With average monthly rents in Dublin surging past 2,000 Euros this year, charging pocket change for shows is hardly a recipe for a sustainable career. It’s no accident that the heyday of Ian MacKaye came at a time when much of the other D.C. was still boarded-up and neglected. One imagines that $5 policy would’ve been a slight bit more challenging to maintain were he to come up now and have a $2,000 lease in Columbia Heights to contend with every month.

The situation is hardly better in the other once hollowed out towns that cradled thriving music scenes in the 20th Century. Affordability and creativity may have once gone hand-in-hand, but as the success of Fontaines D.C. exemplifies, it’s not like the insane cost of living in places like Dublin precludes artists from thriving there. All it means is that money, now, can no longer simply be sneered at. Making it as an artist means getting paid, even if pursuing that result makes you feel a little queasy. Is that too real for ya? Is that too real?

In July I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Andrew Thompson, who runs the data science website Components, on a project where we analyzed some 18,000 cable news transcripts to tease out which figures in the Mueller Investigation received the most coverage from MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. My essay on our findings is here, and there’s more where that came from— over the next couple months we’ll be releasing several other essays that use data to examine some different corners of the media ecosystem. Stay tuned, and check out the other cool stuff Components has put out, including Liz Pelly’s piece on Spotify streaming data and the interview between Andrew and the journalist Barrett Brown about the divergence between the New York Times’ print and online editions.

My old chum Annie Fish is in the midst of a really exciting project wherein they go back over the catalog of music they released as Violet Mice and write up liner notes for each and every song. Violet Mice has released a ton of material over the years (we’re talking like 17 albums, people), so as you can imagine this is quite an undertaking— and that’s before you get into the emotional labor of revisiting art you created in freaking high school and trying to tease out what was driving you at the time. Whether or not you listen to Violet Mice (and you should!), Annie’s liner notes are really fascinating looks at how a person formulates and refines a creative practice. To get access to the project, all you gotta do is head over to their Patreon and kick them two bucks— easy!

Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website or out on the patio with my laptop and a mint tea, savoring those last few steamy days of summer.

Your pal,


K Paoletter 14: Nowhereville

June 11th, 2019


In 2016, Phoenix overtook Philadelphia to become America’s fifth largest city. In response to the news, the city’s WHYY public radio station ran a scorching post that dismissed Phoenix’s growth as little more than the result of “buying up insane quantities of land,” a luxury that reporter Mark Dent made clear was not available to the City of Brotherly Love. “We’re on an entirely different playing field,” he huffed, “a land-locked, dense, actually urban playing field.” Rather than “one big, sprawling strip mall,” Philly was a “bustling city.” “On paper,” he concluded, addressing the Sonoran metropolis, “You will soon enjoy the distinction of being one of America’s top five biggest cities. In the mind of any person who doesn’t live in a desert, you will not even be close.”

The people of Philadelphia remain, as ever, extremely well-adjusted. Over at the Arizona Republic, reporter Brenna Goth was circumspect in responding to this and other broadsides from incensed Pennsylvanians. “Big doesn’t equal urban,” Goth wrote, admitting that “those looking for a ‘big city’ don’t mean a place with more residents or square miles. People associate them with skyscrapers and trains and more than one busker playing electric guitar downtown on a Friday night.” “Will Phoenix ever have the cachet of cities such as Philadelphia, Seattle or San Francisco,” she wondered. “Is that even our goal?”

Though settlement in Phoenix’s Salt River Valley dates back a millennium to when the Hohokam people had over 100,000 acres of its land under irrigation, the history of urban development there really didn’t get cranking until the mid-20th Century, with over 200,000 people arriving between 1955 and 1960 alone. A civic booster named Raymond Carlson ascribed the astounding growth of the city at the time to the simple fact that folks from the East Coast and Midwest “have decided that living in the sun is a lot more fun.” The fun, in truth, was mostly attributable to the novel amenities that made it possible to avoid the sun; as a Vice President of the city’s preeminent Valley Bank told a Saturday Evening Post Reporter around the same time, “I awake in my air-conditioned home in the morning… I dress and get into my air-conditioned automobile and drive to the air-conditioned garage in the basement of this building. I work in an air-conditioned office, eat in an air-conditioned restaurant and perhaps go to an air-conditioned theater.”

By the time Edward Abbey wrote his 1976 article in the New York Times decrying Phoenix as a “blob” akin to the hideous creature from a certain fifties monster flick, the city’s population had swelled past 1.3 million. In Abbey’s imagining, it was “a mad amoeba escaped from a laboratory. Pink and palpitating, running amuck, urged on by the Chamber of Commerce, and growing, ever‐GROWING, this thing threatens to devour the planet. I forget how they stopped it. Maybe they didn't.” WHYY’s Mark Dent shared in the casting of Phoenix’s sprawl as unnatural, pointing to an online schematic of its borders that “recommends people call the City Clerk Department to see if anything new has been annexed and the map is already outdated. In other words, they’re cheating growing so fast they’re not bothering to keep up with themselves.”

All of this criticism boils down to a crucial question: Is Phoenix a “real” city? Or, more broadly, what even is a “real” city? The perception of largely suburban Western metropolises as not cities but enormous, oozing things has hardly shifted since Abbey’s time. If Phoenix has any utility to outsiders at all, it’s as a cultureless void. The city serves as a backdrop for Kristen Bell’s character on The Good Place to guzzle margaritas and undercut her trashy friends, or else as a potent counterweight to the bustling chaos of Vietnam in G.B. Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica. In that book, Tran’s parents live in an anonymous, yellow-tinted ranch house nestled into a carpet of other anonymous, yellow-tinted ranch houses, their heart-breaking refugee story swallowed up into American banality.

Even as a majority of Americans now live in suburban environments, the national consciousness of life in those places has only marginally evolved over the past half century, and the critique of them from the urban Northeast hasn’t budged. No matter how many people live in sprawling cities like Phoenix, they’ll never be real. Real cities have subways. Real cities have sidewalks populated by cute café tables and houses that press up against each other like piano keys. Their bars, like their laundromats, remain lit up long into the night. The seasons change in real cities, as inexorably as the rent climbs. Cities like Phoenix? Too hot, too diffuse, too quiet.

In her rejoinder, the Republic’s Brianna Goth wrote that “In terms of development, Phoenix looks more like a real city than it has in decades. Since... 2010, new apartments, university buildings and residents have transformed downtown. Neighborhoods outside the urban core are bustling with hubs of bars and restaurants.” The real estate site Curbed agreed, profiling a native Phoenician who, after several years in Los Angeles, returned to the city in 2011 to find “dense urban development finally taking root. Light rail stops criss-crossed downtown, energetic bars and restaurants drew people onto the sidewalks, an arts district was thriving, and downtown campuses brought students to an area dominated by office workers and government bureaucrats.”

It’s not hard to imagine a Philadelphian reading such attempts at narrative changing with a sneer. Oh, Phoenix built itself a light rail? That’s cute. Some galleries downtown? Townhouses? A food scene? Too bad— none of that’s real. When you’re Phoenix, you don’t get to be real. You’re just a blob. If you want to join the tens of thousands of people moving there every year, you better prepare to be absorbed into national anonymity. Funny then, that so many people seem perfectly content with such a fate. I guess it’s better to be ignored than to have to spend another year in Philadelphia.

Apologies are in order for such a protracted delay between my last newsletter and this one! Beyond writing a weekly media criticism column for Harper’s in the interim, I reviewed Amos Barshad’s No One Man Should Have All That Power and Dreyer’s English for The Nation, María Sonia Cristoff’s masterful False Calm for The Harvard Review, and groused about how baseball statheads are propping up the game’s billionaire owners in The Baffler. Oh, and for all you current and reformed New Englanders out there, I also wrote about Boston’s transit crisis and a kooky proposal to solve it for Boston magazine. Point is, I’ve been a little busy. But the good news is I’m planning to get back into a regular groove with this thing, and will make sure to at least get another one out to you clambering hoards before the summer ends.

Quick shout out to the great Will Stephenson and the exceptional essay of his that ran in the April/May Believer. The subject is his distant relative Archibald Butt (!), a Teddy Roosevelt confidant and noted dandy who perished with the Titanic in 1912. Bringing a fresh perspective to a disaster as over-trodden as the Titanic is just about impossible, but between the peculiar life of Butt and the sharply organized structure, this piece just sings.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or staring enviously at the succulent display on that new bougie restaurant’s patio.

Your pal,


K Paoletter 13: Lie Down on the Couch

January 30th, 2019


The first Modernism course I took in college was really a class on Freud. We read case studies, lectures, and Civilization and Its Discontents before we picked up any Joyce or Faulkner. The well-worn argument the professor was making with such a syllabus was that the exploding popularity of psychoanalysis in the 1890s was a necessary precondition for the precedence interiority took in the literature of the next century. Freud created a pattern for how minds functioned; Modernism was a way of filling in the lines.

Fair enough. But however dependent Woolf and her clique were on Freud in developing their characters, the trappings of his method— your talking cures, your oedipal urges, your oral fixations— almost never appear in the work itself. That disinclination to refer directly to Freud allowed those writers to evoke minds that felt plucked from life, not a diagnostic textbook. Flash forward a few generations of writers being reared on Freud’s centrality to Modern letters, though, and you end up with a book like Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, where the characters aren’t so much people as analysands, prostrate on the couch and rambling on as the reader sits nearby, scribbling away with a sharp No. 2 pencil.

First released in 1991, Two Girls, Fat and Thin was Gaitskill’s first novel. In it, an aspiring reporter named Justine Shade (thin) interviews the eccentric Dorothy Never (fat) for an article on Definitism, a counter-cultural movement modeled off Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. The interview begins with Dorothy’s disclosure that she became involved with Definitism because it provided an escape from her father, who had sexually abused her starting at the age of 14. Justine responds by admitting she too was molested, in her case by a friend of the family. “It didn’t happen that often though,” she demures, “I know that’s not as awful as with your father because” “Stop,” Dorothy interrupts. “Don’t deny your own experience. It’s just not the kind of thing you can quantify. Any therapist will tell you that.”

The women’s shared trauma acknowledged, Justine presses on with her interview. Turning the conversation to the Atlas Shrugged-style novels of Definitism’s founder, Anna Granite, Justine asks, “Do you see a contradiction in the sexual behavior of her characters... The pattern of dominance and submission that she says is, in other spheres, irrational?” Dorothy, ever the true believer, resolutely does not:

Look, I’m a sex abuse victim and so are you, and you ought to be able to understand… A masochist is somebody like my mother who was demeaned by her subservience to a cruel, dishonest, contemptible man. When the women of Granite’s books submit, they do it out of strength, out of choice, as a gift. That’s the difference between masochism and love, and if you don’t see that, then you’re crazy.

As the professionals say, there’s a lot to unpack there. But from a writerly perspective, what’s notable is that rather than a reason to connect, Gaitskill has restyled Dorothy and Justine’s shared trauma as a wedge of conflict between them.

The invocations of psychoanalysis throughout the interview may not be subtle, but they are effective: Two women who the reader feels should be drawing closer are instead being pulled apart. The only culprit? Their damaged psychology. All of which is to say: the novel is working. Forty pages in and we’re reaching exit velocity. Here are two characters with an already unique, perplexing relationship. The reader wants to see what happens, sure, but more crucially, he wants to understand how each woman came to be.

Gaitskill is happy to oblige. Her method is to jerk the reader back to each woman’s childhood and write chapter after chapter detailing everything from their adolescence to their respective arrivals into adulthood. Nearly half the book is occupied this way, and any reader who had hoped to learn about each woman’s origins will be so thoroughly bludgeoned with backstory by the time he makes it back to the book’s present he may never wish to read in the past tense again.

The choice to detail the cruel facts of Dorothy and Justine’s abuse is understandable; Gaitskill’s need to spell out a plausible antecedent for each and every one of their characteristics is not. Dorothy’s fatness can be traced to her habit of guzzling Hershey’s syrup and Reddi Wip as kid, while Justine’s kink for BDSM is chalked up to a neighborhood boy pretending to brand her, just like Olive Oyl had been in a cartoon. These disclosures neatly dispel the sense of mystery each character carried in the opening pages, creating the impression that their contradictions and preoccupations can be explained through the untangling of a complex chain of causes and effects.

Where those chains lead once we’ve (finally) returned to the book’s present, of course, is to a rapprochement between the two seemingly opposite women. Of course, even the insecurity that makes room for such a friendship is traced back to their childhoods: The fat girl was bullied in school, and so she distrusts any future attempts to befriend her. The thin girl was the bully in school, but her problems are no less dire, as now she resists the vulnerability that might lead to real friendship.

Just as a tightly plotted book that shuttles the reader from one event to the next can leave her feeling more like a spectator than an active participant in the story, airtight characters whose every quality is accounted for leave the reader without any dark corners to illuminate with her own experience. At 13, Dorothy journals, “I fear my father’s anger, but I fear my mother’s love;” Justine, after being taken to see a psychologist named Dr. Venus (!) by her parents, dreams of him watching her have sex in his office. Every step of the way, the two women’s psychology is understood in its totality. If the reader can indeed be thought of as an analyst, reading Two Girls, Fat and Thin is akin to glancing down at your notepad during a session with a patient and realizing all the notes have already been written.

The distance created between the reader and Gaitskill’s characters by her moment-by-moment psychoanalyzing not only makes Dorothy and Justine’s relationship difficult to invest in, it more importantly undercuts the central ideas of the book. On any given page, Gaitskill is thinking through the social interactions that persuade women to change their bodies, or else trying to understand how sex can be both a reprieve from trauma and its trigger. But in tying those themes so firmly to these two characters’ individual psychosis, she narrows what should be an indictment of the entire culture into a joint case study that can be filled away with all the rest. One fat, one thin, the reader thinks, studying the women’s conversational tics and unconventional habits like she’s prodding a pair of vivisected frogs, and neither one at all like me.

Since the last K Paoletter, I wrote about The Earth Dies Streaming, the first collection from n+1’s film critic, A.S. Hamrah, for Guernica, and reviewed the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s exhibition “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” for The Baffler. If you care at all about criticism I cannot recommend Hamrah’s book highly enough— nobody gets how living digitally influences the experience of culture quite like Hamrah. And if you care at all about fine art, please, please, do not go see Pooh. As I argue in the piece, these sort of insular novelty shows subvert the entire purpose of an encyclopedic museum: providing a space for novel connections across time, culture, and medium.

A little late to the game on the whole reflecting-on-the-past-year thing, but here’s a VIDA Count-style demographic breakdown of the books I reviewed in 2018 (if you’re interested, here’s 2016 and 2017): Overall, I reviewed books by 12 men, 11 women, and one person who is gender nonconforming (that author was also the only openly Queer author I reviewed last year). Nine authors were from North America, and of those, five were white, two Asian American, and two Hispanic or Latinx. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I reviewed five authors from Asia, four from South America, three from Africa, two from Europe, and one from the Caribbean. Though I’m glad I read pretty widely in general last year, I’m disappointed in myself for not reviewing any black or Native American/American Indian authors, and fixing that, along with seeking out more openly Queer writers, are my big priorities as a critic going into 2019.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or running in blind fear away from the incoming high impact snow squalls. January, man.

Your pal,


K Paoletter 12: Too Close to Call

November 14th, 2018


Similar to the printing of dollar bills or the stretching of taffy, election night coverage on a 24-hour news network can’t help but satisfy any viewer charmed by the spectacle of a machine doing exactly what it was built to do. This past Tuesday I tuned into MSNBC; for all its chuckle-headed progressive optimism, the network is still more tolerable than the forced sobriety and both-sides-ism of CNN. Anchored by Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow, the election night crew was firing on all cylinders: there was a panel of strategists from the Clinton era well trained in killing time; the “big board” and it’s minder, Steve Kornacki, a human manifestation of teeth chattering; and a procession of appearances by peripheral Republicans, each competing to be the most vociferous defender of Ronald Reagan’s so-called values against the current crop of their party’s leaders.

What makes election night television truly exciting, though, is that despite all the flashy graphics, impossibly long guest lists, and pompous music, nobody actually knows what the hell is going on. In our age of narrative politics, election nights are pivotal plot points that promise to utterly upend the arc we all thought we’d been following. But on the night itself, for a few blessed hours, the narrative is an ever-shifting thing and the flailing of the cable anchors to tame it constitutes the best damn show on television.

Things were smooth in the early going, as promising early returns from Florida led the MSNBC panel to speculate that progressives had hit on a winning strategy in the Deep South: candidates of color running unapologetically to the Left. Bemused, Chris Matthews described one of the closing images of the campaign, when Barack Obama had stopped in the state for an rally with Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson, as “inspiring.” How the world had changed, to see an “African-American guy helping out the white candidate.” And in Florida, to boot!

By 8:30, though, the narrative had taken a dire turn. Both Nelson and Gillum’s leads were tightening and three competitive House races in the Sunshine State were called in favor of Republican incumbents. Jaws firmly set, the older members of the panel began dutifully trotting out the requisite jokes about the 2000 recount. Meanwhile, Senator Joe Donnelly was blown out by his Republican challenger in Indiana and the early results weren’t looking so good for Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, either. Around this time, FiveThirtyEight’s real-time forecast (surely as anxiety inducing, if less widely viewed, as the infamous New York Times needle of 2016) showed the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House dropping down from over 80% to a coin flip.

The mood was grave on the MSNBC set. James Carville reluctantly stated his growing belief that “this is not going to be the wave election that people like me would have hoped for.” McCaskill herself made a brief appearance, offering the hardly encouraging, “Donald Trump won this state by 20 points. So, I’m really proud that we kind of clawed our way to dead even near the end of the campaign.” I, at this point, was masochistically refreshing FiveThirtyEight’s live blog in between inspections of where the vote was outstanding in the Kentucky 6th and the Virginia 7th. Which is to say, I didn’t miss a harried Nate Silver tweeting, “We think our live election day forecast is definitely being too aggressive and are going to put it on a more conservative setting where it waits more for projections/calls instead of making inferences from partial vote counts.”

This missive was received with a thuddering guffaw by Silver’s doubters— the analytics, it seems, were as helpless in the face of election night uncertainty as the TV prognosticators— but it coincided with Donna Shalala winning a must-have district in South Florida, a result that steadied the nerves of the MSNBC crew. Come 9 o’clock, they were further buoyed by the early lead Beto O’Rourke was posting against Ted Cruz in Texas. The reckless speculation his gaudy numbers provoked was jaw-dropping. “If a Democrat can win in Texas,” Nicole Wallace proclaimed, “a Democrat can win anywhere.” Chris Matthews was glowing on Beto’s political savvy: “There have been a lot of Democratic presidential nominees in recent years that don’t have that personal touch. He’s got it.”

The good news just kept coming. In New Jersey, Democrats were laying waste to their rivals in the suburbs of New York; over in the heartland, arch-Trumpian troll Kris Kobach’s was easily dispatched by Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s race. At 9:30, Fox News projected the Democrats would win the House— but was this a troll job meant to suppress the turnout in Orange County’s swingy congressional districts (which still had an hour and a half left until their polls closed)? Or had the network’s reputable data analysis team managed to overrule its conservative commentators?
The narrative, in short, had turned again. After some early setbacks, the Democrats were back on pace to win the House going away, even as it looked like the Republicans would just barely hold onto the Senate. The MSNBC crew was particularly struck by the victory of Max Rose in the longtime Republican stronghold of Staten Island. That race provoked the most bizarre exchange of the night, wherein Brian Williams and Chris Wallace went from noting that Rose campaigned on repairing New York City’s decaying transit system to bemoaning the metropolis’ lack of ambition in its public works. Williams exclaimed, “Look at 287! You could lose a hubcap!” (which, c’mon, Brian, how long have you lived in New York? Everybody knows it’s called the BQE). The banter was mercifully ended by Rachel Maddow half-joking that she felt like she was listening to the Waze app.

The conversation turned again to Beto’s improbable, impending victory in Texas. Anyone who saw Beto on the stump, Lawrence O’Donnell proclaimed, “knew that we were seeing nothing like anything we’ve seen in a Democratic campaign in Texas.” The musing was cut short by Brian Williams: “Guys, I have to interrupt, we have a big call… NBC News is projecting Ted Cruz will return to the Senate from Texas, and Republicans will be guaranteed control of the Senate as a result.”

The set fell silent. The camera lingered on a graphic of Ted’s smirking face superimposed on Rockefeller Center. Maddow, clearly scrambling, threw it to Chris Hayes, stationed at the planned Beto victory party in El Paso. She asked Hayes what the mood was in the room and Hayes, clutching his ear piece to his head, reported “I don’t think they have absorbed it at all to be totally honest. Loud music playing.”

The narrative, again, had to be rewritten. The Democrats were cooked in the Senate, and there was no telling how bad it would get. Yet the shocking results kept pouring in from the House. A win in Oklahoma! In South Carolina! Just before 10:30, NBC followed Fox’s lead and projected that the Democrats would indeed win the House after all. For the next hour, a measured judgment that this was a split decision coalesced, one where the Democrats’ combination of winning back a solid portion of Midwestern, working-class voters and deepening their hold on suburban areas in the Northeast and Sunbelt was translating to a gain of 30 or so seats in the House, even as the Senate playing field being tilted so firmly towards rural, white states ensured that Trumpian candidates were easily prevailing in the Heartland.

This narrative, too, would prove premature. The slow count of votes on the West Coast meant that the winner of a number of districts in California wouldn’t be known until the end of the week— once those numbers began coming in, though, Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman described them as “a bloodbath for CA Republicans.” In the Arizona Senate race, too, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled into the lead on Friday on the back of early votes from metropolitan Phoenix finally being tabulated. As of this writing, 9 seats in the House and two in the Senate remain uncalled by the AP, including in our old friend Florida, where a recount in underway.

The lesson, albeit an obvious one, is that there are limits to the narrativization of politics. MSNBC and its ilk are doing everything they can to convert the excitement of fresh results into eyeballs, even as they shy away from the truth that getting a result in the first place is a messier business than we give it credit for. Across our 50 states we vote by mail, ranked-choice selection, provisionally, and by absentee— the fact we can know anything on election night is nothing short of a bureaucratic miracle. So the spectacle of election night television should be considered as just that: entertainment only loosely connected to determining the shift in political power that will be made official in January 2019. In the meantime though, at least we had a few laughs, some cries, and plenty of commercial breaks to go grab another beer from the fridge.

Speaking of the idiot box, the latest issue of The Baffler includes my feature essay on the miserable state of television criticism and how the blind boosterism of our most prominent reviewers is letting Hollywood studios off the hook for producing an unending procession of mediocre programs. Check it out, and if you don’t already, please consider subscribing to The Baffler. Sure it can get pretty adversarial, but to my mind the magazine’s rigorous skepticism stands out against the go-along-to-get-along attitude that too many purportedly intellectual periodicals have cultivated in recent years. The writing’s stellar, the art’s fascinating, and the darn thing only comes out once every two months, meaning you actually have time to read most of it. What’re you waiting for?

As always, thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or swaddling myself in an unconscionable number of blankets and staring forlornly out the window at the suddenly bare trees.

Your pal,


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