Get Back (Take 372)
E-bikes, The Future, Silliness, Story/Backstory, Icelandic Nazis
writing with news of three recent publications.
First up: the “Screenland” column in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Like many of my magazine pieces in recent years, this came out of my interest in the vile effects of car dependence and car-centric planning on our cities and environment. I’ve typically focused on the negative: death and injury, weakened neighborhoods, pollution, corporate lies. But lately I’ve been thinking––and I know I’m not the only one––that our conversations about the challenges of the future probably need more registers: happy registers, playful registers, silly registers. (I brushed up against this idea in my July piece on pedestrian death for the New York Review, where I gestured toward the possible roles of art and theatricality in our conversations about transit reform.)
That’s why I as so happy to come across “Bike Hunters,” a seriously goofy (and goofily serious) YouTube series created by VanMoof, a Dutch e-bike company. Each episode relates the attempts of VanMoof employees to track down stolen e-bikes––in cities all over the world––and return them to their owners. The show is weird and fun, and it was a nice challenge to articulate why I suspect that matters.
Unless I’m forgetting something, it’s the first “Screenland” I’ve written that endorses something I’ve watched instead of tearing it apart!
Next up: a review for The New Yorker of Jessica Au’s new novel, Cold Enough for Snow. This book came on my radar when it won The Novel Prize, a new international award meant to reward innovation in the novel form. When I started reading, I was a little surprised: it felt like an atmospheric, plot-light novel of consciousness of a type that is pretty standard-issue these days. But I soon realized that, in addition to being a delightfully evocative travel novel, it also was a sneaky vehicle for powerful thinking about what we expect from stories––and from people––and how these expectations might blind us to what’s important.
Finally, a shorter review, for The New York Times Book Review, of a novel I didn’t have much good to say about: Red Milk, the latest from the Icelandic novelist Sjón. I see Sjón as a totally unique figure in world literature, and I’ve enjoyed many of his books, which very casually and nimbly blend realism, historical investigation, and myth. Red Milk, by contrast, feels hamstrung by caution. In my review, I speculate that this might have something to do with how its subject––Nazism––which sometimes seems so obviously meaningful and important that artists who take it up forget to … be artists. They let the subject sit there, assuming its doing the work of meaning-making on its own. Red Milk is hardly the worst offender I’ve encountered on this front, but I didn’t like it, and it’s certainly not the first Sjón I would recommend. That would be either Moonstone or The Blue Fox. Even if it’s Nazism you want, there’s a better Sjón for that: The Whispering Muse.
Coming soon: more news of my novel, still due out May 31, and in the meantime available for pre-order. Plenty of options linked here––or you can call your favorite independent bookstore and ask them to have a copy ready for you on publication day.
Looking forward to hearing from you, as always, —Peter