In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

25387388A few years ago a psychologist friend asked me if I was a gambler. Back in my first two years of college in a small Midwestern town—an accidental choice, after all, at least for this East Coast kid—overcome with boredom though periodically buzzing with passels of first-rate psychedelics and crystal meth, I’d play weekend-long poker games, listening to stacks of variously-scratched Rolling Stones LPs in someone else’s dorm room, resulting in lost sleep and most of the cash in my pocket. Each deal on site  was going to be better than the last. Walk away when you’re down? What’s the point of that, eh? Shut up and deal. We do it over and over again, because luck is like some invisible force in the universe: sometimes it’s on your side, and sometimes it isn’t. If you back out, you’ll never know if the next hand’s going to be a royal straight flush. So you ante up and watch the cards sail towards you.

Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore, the tiny changeling who captivated the world when she befriended E.T. on screen at age 4, is a bona fide Grimm’s fairytale princess. Born to acting royalty (she’s a fourth generation Barrymore — thespian equivalent to a Kennedy), she was raised poor and in obscurity by a single mother. Her Barrymore father, John Jr., a drug-addled, abusive, and largely absentee parent decamped for good when his wife was three months pregnant with Drew. Mother Jaid, if not literally an evil stepmother, a not-good-enough mother, put Drew to work at age 11 months, in a Gaines Puppy Chow commercial, where she was bitten during her audition by the canine co-star. Jaid also presided over her daughter’s pre-adolescent descent into drugs and alcohol, taking her on late-night bacchanals to Studio 54 where, due to child-star celebrity status and non-existent parenting, nine-year-old Drew was allowed to smoke cigarettes and stay up all night, school being something she got to do only when filming a movie. The Bad Mother locked Drew in an institution (can anyone say Rapunzel?) for a year and half when Drew was 12, but was vanquished when Drew turned 14 and successfully petitioned the court for emancipation. Essentially an “orphan” at age 15, she lived alone in a West Hollywood apartment, worked the odd neighborhood waitress job (too young for a driver’s license, she required employment within walking distance) and struggled to return to acting after her very public flame-out, recounted in her first autobiography, Little Girl Lost. (“Co-written,” when Barrymore was 13, with People magazine correspondent, Todd Gold, this first person narrative, long out of print,  has become something of a collector’s item: paperback copies from second-party vendors on Amazon are currently priced as high as $1999.12.) Along the way, she acquired a fairy godfather in the form of director Steven Spielberg, a fairy godmother in acting teacher Anna Strasberg, and a professional Prince Charming in Adam Sandler with whom she made a trilogy of romantic comedies and whom she calls her “cinematic soul-mate.”

all the light we cannot seeAnthony Doerr’s sentences are as perfect and precise as the crystals and seashells he writes about. Open his new novel to any page, pull out any sentence, and you’ll find his lyrical perfect pitch. “That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth” he says about his protagonist. We could say the same thing about Doerr’s prose.

Lilianes-Balcony-206x300“But its language was not language at all,” Kelcey Parker writes. “Music, perhaps, chords of concrete, stone, glass; the melody: falling water.” How very apt. As I’ve been reading through Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony I’ve had a confession on my mind: that I often read for language. I’m not a poet, and I’m not a novelist, but when I read in either genre what I’m looking for so often deals with language—the way words hit like a rock, or fall like water.

Patchouli Morning

The metaphysical impishness, erudition and breadth of vision in this sexually charged roman à clef is Smith at his most vulnerable. We recoil in horror as he recounts a series of heartbreaking trysts that recall — then exceed — Flaubert in both emotional power and literary merit. Curiously, the novel stagnates for the first twenty pages with inane references to pedestrian, adolescent love themes directed toward a sophomore called only “Emily,” but it then soars for the remaining 344 pages with a narrative and vision as taut and authentic as anything in the Western canon since forever. And while the inclusion of the lyrics to Metallica’s “Fade to Black” in the prologue offers little in the way of relevance, one is reminded that — like black holes — not everything should be easily understood.

Lachrymose in Transylvania

Intoxicating, tantalizing, always potentially violent, this captivating tome helps define not just the current state of Inuit America, but the world at large. It is a book so erudite and well wrought that its aura somehow illuminates the rest of Smith’s oeuvre, sustaining his post-apocalyptic vision. And although Smith asks a lot of his readers (would Dracula really show up for the soap-box derby, uninvited?), we are rewarded for our efforts later in this tour de force when it becomes clear everything has been a dream — but not in that hokey, St. Elsewhere way — in that way that only Smith, at the height of his creative powers, can manufacture so convincingly.

Da Nang Disco

Can anyone write about the horrors of the Vietnam War like Smith? Maybe Tim O’Brien, but does O’Brien dare to set his narrative against the backdrop of a colonial discotheque struggling to keep the party going during the Tet Offensive? No. Smith weaves his flawless prose seamlessly through the trenches and pop hits of 1968 Vietnam while exposing the artifice and shady underbelly that was the 2001 Little League World Series. The daring cadenza that begins the novel is, as often seems to be the case with Smith’s first chapters, categorically unreadable — but not in the sense that they are ill-conceived or poorly written — they are simply too much to bear, like much of Joyce. The Emily character makes a dramatic entrance, screams, then leaves the novel for good. Again. It’s so haunting! Maybe I should just come clean here and admit that I am not smart enough to comprehend what Smith is getting at, usually.

Toggle & Yaw

Just when you get the feeling that Smith may nave reached the limits of his vast fecundity, he treats us to a space novel like no other. To call Toggle & Yaw a “space novel,” though, is tantamount to calling The Bible a “sand novel.” The book begins quite predictably with a string of complaints (as is becoming Smith’s modus operandi) related to a character named “Emily,” who appears quite substantially in earlier chapters then disappears without a whimper. What are we to think of this “Emily?” Who really cares, when, later in the novel, Toggle (a Type A cosmonaut from the future) explains to Yaw (a robot/fire hydrant with a history of drug abuse), “Thy sample science programs, like deep surveys and slitless grism spectroscopy of exo-planet transit, will compromise ye olde mission’s capabilities in near-infrared, m’lady. Anon.” Can you think of another writer who can meld flawless Victorian patois with deep-space discourse like Smith? This reviewer cannot.

The Rending

If it can be said of any writer living today that he/she has fused lyric virtuosity with a kind childlike aplomb, that writer must be Mr. Smith. The Rending begins with the tale of a particularly devastating train accident, I think. Of course, Smith knows that, in fiction, it’s often what’s “not there” that lends to the visceral beauty inherent in certain exchanges and turns of phrase. Indeed, The Rending, Smith’s fifth and finest book thus far, is an artistic blitzkrieg on literary expectation and norms, as the novel, coming in at just under 600 pages, features not a single word. If Kafka, Proust, McCullers and Nabokov pooled their best work and created a kind of “Dream Team” book, one wonders whether the ensuing scribbles could even be put up for consideration next to Smith’s magnum opus. The culminate car-chase through the byzantine streets of Caligula’s Rome recalls I, Claudius, with lasers. Not-to-be-perused.


On first read, one wonders whether Mr. Smith actually typed the word “Emily” 2,011,740 times, or if he in fact used the “cut-and-paste” option on his PC. Either way, this paean to lost love compels the reader to ask: “Is this The Great American Novel?” or perhaps, “What’s your return policy?”

DH: If you back-flip The Lovers by Vendela Vida you will find six blurbs. What the blurbs say is of no importance. Also of no importance is whether the authors of the blurbs have read The Lovers. There are no negative blurbs, which would be a crime against nature.

Four of the six blurbs are by writers I love: Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, Julie Orringer and Zoe Heller. I circled the names of the other two, Miranda July and Stephen Elliott, so I would remember to read them.

Vendela hasn’t made writing this novel easy for herself. She keeps Yvonne, her principal, isolated for a remarkable amount of time. Is this a disastrous mistake? You write “John sat in his room.” or “John made coffee.” because you don’t know what the fuck to do with John.

Hawthorne wrote a chapter of “The House of the Seven Gables” that consists of a dead character in a room. I love the chances that great American literature can take.

The good double V makes Yvonne’s isolation the shoreline on which The Lovers pivots. Yvonne is a widow traveling back to Darca in Turkey, where she spent her honeymoon,  to reestablish a living tie to her husband, Peter. They were Vermont schoolteachers. Peter died, parked, in a hit and run.

Yvonne has pulled out the plug since her husband’s death. I love Vida’s small, insistent psych-outs, like gnats buzzing around your ears. You try to brush them away but you also wonder if it’s just your imagination. Because Yvonne has disconnected herself, she’s set up for a pattern of confusions.

Y is a highly competent teacher but she’s caught teaching the same lesson twice to the same class. Her principal urges her to take vacation time and VV implies he’d be happy to have Yvonne on vacation permanently. She arrives at the small Darca airport from Istanbul and waits around for her pickup, a stranger in alien territory, thinking that there’s been some terrible mix-up about her email-made arrangements. We’ve all been through the missed connection. But Yvonne feels at sea congenitally so it doesn’t take much for her to fear she is sinking.

Yvonne’s rented vacation house has a history. Yvonne walks through the three floors plus basement, trying to put together the decor combination of tackiness and affluence. Who lives here? Why is there a hook in the ceiling above the bed in the master bedroom? There are porn pictures under the couch and sex toys left out in another bedroom upstairs. But you have to sleep somewhere. Choose. The reader becomes the character if there is no other character. There’s no one else to identify with. The reader will always identify with someone or they will put the book down.

I’ve talked to Caitlin Macy about her skilled use of the unreliable narrator. I should have added at the time that CM’s narrators think they are reliable. Jason Rice has told me that it’s not possible to fathom intentions. That’s one reason for the methodically observed detail of speech and behavior in his powerful fiction. The good Johnny Evison has told me how characters struggle for self-realization, how there’s a wall or a quirk (struggling with my own words here) that can hold them back. And in two posts I’ve written about James Salter, I’ve talked about his slow-elevator technique of storytelling. How writing doesn’t spill the beans all at once, anymore than you can transition in the blink of an eye from the tenth floor of a building to the lobby in a hundred year old lift. Now from the splendid Vendela Vida, as I try to piece together a model of writing, I see these techniques internalized in one central character attempting to escape from mourning.

I’m such a lucky guy to be blogging. I can ask some of the most talented writers how to write, directly, and even ask them follow-up questions. Especially if I try to ply them with beer. It’s like I’m walking along the strand, tripped up by beautiful seashells, not knowing which to pick up.

If you flip over The Lovers from the pantheon of blurbs side and look closely at those words and “Vendela Vida”, you’ll find a font of seashells. They play an important role in the story. Also, in the lower right hand corner of the cover, you’ll see a dark silhouette of a boy facing you, eyeless, standing in the surf. That is the story. Of course I noticed that VV has picked a lead character’s name that has a “v” in it…and a “Y” that has a “v” on its roof.

In page after page of sensitively observed detail, psyching-out expertise and growing, owl-like shadows that have you dreading what the next page may bring, dreading what may happen as much as Yvonne, Vendela Vida shows us how to write a novel. I’m saying this with great respect, deference even, for distinguished art…but I don’t care who her husband is. I’d rather read Vendela Vida than Dave Eggers. Taste.

JR: I’m all for a guy getting a story published in the New Yorker, and James P. Othmer, (FOB), is a fan of Ben Loory (he told me that he’s been reading these Loory stories aloud to his kids at night. Me? I read ‘Monster Trucks’ to my son, I make all the sounds, and this makes my son happy), but to be perfectly honest with you, I felt a little threatened by the story “TV”.  I’d been hearing things, you know, chatter on Facebook, and some people had mentioned this story to me, and that Ben Loory doesn’t have this book of short stories under contract. Like I said, it’s great this got published in a place that only publishes 52 stories a year, and when you publish Jonathan Lethem’s talking dog story, you’re running out of ideas.  Talking dog stories, do you see what I mean, how is that even possible? A dog that talks? It’s not even funny to pretend that dogs can talk. So, stories like TV should be published more often in the New Yorker, but since that’s the only place to get a story published, really, the only place that matters, then I guess it’s important.

So there’s this guy, he is at home, late for work, watching TV, and he can’t get up, because he sees himself on the TV, going to work. Now this could be a comment on our society, how we are defined by our public personas, or it could by mystical, or magical realism (see, I can’t tell the difference, just call it magic, or realism, don’t put them together, it confuses me), but immediately I’m thrown off by the fact that a guy, any guy, can see himself on the television set while he eats his morning cereal and not flip the fuck out.  He watches his TV self go to work and talk to his boss, and do his job, he sees himself doing it, and the self at home is happy because the TV self has gotten all the work done that the guy sitting at home is supposed to do.

Let’s look at this from birds eye view. Who is this guy? And why is he at home, and not at work? We don’t know. But he is really freaked out, and happy about the fact that there is someone out there doing what he does, while he sits at home. The guy at home even says, I’m trying to figure this out, and I can’t. He then, (later in the story) realizes that his mind is like a fist, and he’s afraid to look at it because it might fly away, okay, why? But, then the man who has been watching himself on TV finally hears someone coming home, and it’s the guy on TV, there are now two guys, the same guy, occupying the same space, and guess what, it’s totally tossed on it’s head. This story is like a snow globe, you shake it, the snow falls, and it falls in the same place, but it looks really great when it falls, because it’s beautiful, so you do it again, and again, and again.  But the snow never changes, and it always falls to the bottom of the snow globe.  Then the room gets filled with more guys who all look the same, running around, like it all matters so much that they are in the same room.  What? Then Loory has the guy imagine he’s a doctor performing surgery, and the surgery goes well, and he gets to screw the hottest nurse, because all nurses are hot, right? At this point, I read to the end of the story, and really got worried, that maybe I was slipping off the earth, you know, because somewhere out there, there is an edge to the world, right? Read the story and decide for yourself. I like Loory’s writing and I’ll bet this collection has already been scooped up, probably by FSG, but man, am I confused.

JC: A few weeks ago, JR posted a great review of Tom Rachman’s new novel The Imperfectionists. Now that it’s released you’re no doubt hearing quite a few good things about it. Let me jump on the bandwagon by saying that The Imperfectionists is a fine book, whether it’s his first novel or twentieth.

The Imperfectionists centers around the employees of a small international newspaper based in Rome. Using each chapter as a character sketch, Rachman carves a small history of the paper:

At the behest of his editor, obituary writer Arthur Gopal is sent on assignment to interview an obscure, dying academic as information-gathering for the inevitable. Reading her texts, he becomes enthralled by her work, and despite his personal distaste for her, writes a beautiful elegiac obit for her. Herman Cohen, corrections editor, entertains a houseguest for whom he has had a hero-like worship for forty years. CFO Abbey Pineola finds herself uncomfortably seated next to the man she fired on an overseas flights, yet finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him. The onset of the internet age and the slow but obvious deterioration of the newspaper unveil a hazy future for all.

Rachman writes these scenes and scenarios with an unexpected elegance. He gets beneath the skin of his characters and reveals poignant scars and aches, wit and playfulness. Then he combines what feel like stand-alone stories such that he leaves the reader with a bigger, equally elegant whole.

This book deserves every compliment it receives.


In his debut Collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor channels a few old chestnuts, (I’ve only just gotten started with this book) but it immediately impressed this reader with a nicely chiseled style that’s refreshingly “no bullshit”.  There’s a hurricane lashing the coast, and Taylor’s narrator tells us about Amber, and some other girls, kissing, screwing, maybe hopeful screwing, and invents a deserted suburban landscape that is immediately recognizable. Amber stares out the window, so do we, of course this story is titled; Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season.

By the time you see what’s going on in the second story, In My Heart I Am Already Gone, and you witness it by noticing the cat hair floating through the air, Taylor informs us that Kyle has been hired to kill his cousin’s cat.  There is a kind of arrested development here, that permeates the first three stories, and carries right over into the fourth.  There aren’t many instances where comic books, or Star Wars enters into the picture, but I get the feeling that these men can’t get out of their late teens, or early twenties because they haven’t been giving good examples of how to do it, or chances to forge ahead, they all seem afraid to make mistakes. Kyle looks like he’s breaking out of his youth and doing whatever comes to mind, which is why killing a cat is the only thing that happens to him in this story, and he wants to fuck his cousin. Not an unusual emotion, to be sure, cousins have been going at it for years, but Kyle wants to be cool, and subversive, when it comes to breaking his cousin in. I’m probably shading this a little on the sick side, but Kyle knows he’s never leaving town, so why not let his emotion out. Again, these men don’t know what to do with each other, so they act naturally, which is natural to them, and odd to us.  The chestnuts I spoke of earlier are Carver and Barthelme, who have influenced Taylor with a sparse style, and little bit of quirky taste, but nothing that’s strange. I’ve never had an appetite for Barthelme, but David Gates gives a great quote, and if you’ve read Jernigan, than you’ll love this book.  I’m probably holding back most of my compliments on this collection because the NYT gave away everything except free copies of the book.  As far as affordability goes, you can’t go wrong with this, and oh yeah, I wish I could write like this when I was Mr. Taylor’s age. -JR

Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.

Since we’re in holiday mode, you may be walking into a lot of rooms that you don’t ordinarily visit. I’ve been thinking about what’s most interesting to an autistic temperament like mine about such experiences: the background, the part that you don’t quite notice: the height of the ceiling, the quality of light, the footfall in the next room (Are there dishes clattering in the kitchen?), whether the room feels crowded or spacious, the ambience awkward…I’m-trying-to-be-a-good-host-but-I’m-not-quite-making-it, or, full-tilt, these are such cool people!

The background, like the quiet guest who you wonder about;…”Will he ever open his mouth…and if he does…what will come out?”…also seduces me in fiction.

I found “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story in the November 30th New Yorker by Don DeLillo, indispensable. So buy the New Yorker, read the story…and I’m also reading James Wood’s take on Paul Auster for sure…and then throw the New Yorker out. Especially avoid all those cloy-infested cartoons…as bad as junk food. New Yorker cartoons will literally rot your teeth.

Two serious boys, as serious as I can imagine only freshman can be, are walking from dorms to class in a desolate, because wintry, setting somewhere in the boondocks. Stage set: the dorms and the classroom complex, built like a blockhouse, the “Cellblock”, are some distance away from each other so, fine, we can eavesdrop on the boys as they walk and talk.

I love that these guys talk for the sake of talking. Makes you wonder if they’re gay. Only wonder, mind you, they probably aren’t. They’re guy friends. They focus on an elderly man shuffling much ahead of them with his hands behind his back. I commend DeLillo that he makes the gent they notice several generations older than the boys. This helps make the oldster “the other.”

First person narrator and Todd, his school friend, debate the old guy’s coat meticulously. It’s a private contest between them. They debate the facts. What kind of coat is this guy wearing? They point at each other a lot while they talk and when they meet on campus. This is cute. This  is also where in my reading I turned down the dial from gay to homoerotic adolescence.

I don’t know if these boys are going to be writers but they certainly talk with a mastery of detail that indicates that the first person narrator is a pro. Is his friend, Todd, also a Don DeLillo in the making? Nope. Todd’s a just-the-facts kind of guy. It’s the narrator who throws wild details into his arguments, making this conversational brew heady with subversive fictions. So fine, now you can tell these guys apart by their contrasting characters. Nice going, double D.

Of course you know that a duffel coat has toggles but I bet only 5% of the population could define “duffel coat” accurately in this way. Anorak? Define. Loden Coat? Parka? Define. These guys can. Defining atomic facts is part of their language contest.

The old guy being observed, in wintry weather, is not wearing gloves. If you write a superfluous detail into your story then shame on you. But this detail is telling. Why? Because it makes the old guy seem offbeat. And you don’t have to explain this detail in the end. It’s done its job already. It’s held your interest, forestalling the moment when you throw out The New Yorker.

I’m just in the first paragraphs and already “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is snowing gems of details. This is a master story.

I think if a writer has his boys walking to class then he should show the class. Why? Because not to de-energizes the narrative. You’re showing an action, walking to class. Why not show the class or do your students just walk into a blank wall somewhere past the page that you’re reading? Disagree?

There’s a break in the text and we’re in the class. When I read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, I was impressed by how AH worked details of finance into his story by making them expressions of character.

Here DD has our guys attend a philosophy class. Let me tell you, concepts from the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell saturate this text. Some Oxford dons could have a field day, if that’s what dons have, trying to look around their shoulder and grasp the escaping theory that’s running just out of sight of the reader. Atomic facts? Come on, DD! Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, battered from 5 plus readings, sits on my fucking desk.

Not that you’d notice this background, deftly introduced by depicting a class and by throwing out casual phrases, like “atomic facts”, that are really terms from mathematical logic, if you haven’t read Wittgenstein.

A beauty of this text: you don’t have to care! It’s part of what’s behind you in the room and you don’t have to turn around and notice if you don’t want to.

I could write a post about this story that’s longer than the story. I’ll stop here. Who’s the old guy? Read. You’ll find out plenty. But mostly, you’ll be satisfied with a full-course holiday meal of story.

Next time you enter a room as a guest, you may want to focus like a good autistic on the background of your party. Sensing what’s in the background is also part of writing or reading a great story.

But here’s some culinary advice, never forgot, from a philosophy professor that I had as a college freshman. At a feast, leave the table before you are full…while you are still hungry. If you’re the host, the writer, maybe you should snatch the plate away before your guest finishes the meal.

Is that what Delillo does in this story? You tell me.


Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

What does it mean to be literate? That one’s pretty easy; it means you know how to read. What does it mean to be cultural? That one’s a little tougher; it means you know that in most situations, it’s unacceptable to put your cigarette out on a dachshund. And so what does it mean to be “culturally literate?” Many have posed this question (Harold Bloom, the Yale professor currently encased in acrylic and preserved for posterity does it a lot.), yet no one has truly come to terms with an accurate answer. My uncle Seamus once remarked that “cultural literacy is for homosexuals,” but he was urinating in a koi pond at the time, so who knows? I suggest we journey together to see if we can’t get to the core of this labyrinthine dilemma. Perhaps the most logical first step is learning how to read (I’ll wait for a few minutes)… Sweet. Our next step is to determine what exactly is “cultural.” Below are a few undeniably cultural items in the realm of architecture, literature and music. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these things, and then we can begin to get a handhold on what it means to be culturally literate.

The Eiffel Tower

Perhaps the most recognizable man-made structure in the world, The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any culturally minded person. Completed in 1889 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution(1), the Eiffel Tower serves as a constant reminder that not everything in Paris is covered in dog feces.

The tower stands well over 1,000 feet high, something I discovered after dropping a crêpe from the observation deck while utilizing the equation Yf = -1/2gt^2 + Vot+Yo. Nestled along the Seine and overlooking the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower strictly prohibits oral sex in the elevators (although there was no noticeable sign or warning). Also, be sure to say “bonjour” to the one-eyed dwarf who roller skates atop the structure’s antenna, drinking his own blood and reciting Ozymandias(2).  As an added frustration, Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor offers food you can’t afford. I recommend the filet de turnbot au sautoir, écrevisses et champignons à la Riche, then running away.


A mammoth tome, written by James Joyce and published by Sylvia Beach in its entirety in 1928, Ulysses catalogues a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Often cited as the cornerstone of modernist literature, Ulysses takes its name from Homer’s Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, that book you were supposed to read sophomore year but ended up huffing oven cleaner in the school parking lot most of the time.

Written in Joyce’s inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, Ulysses is an integral part of any literary aesthete’s library. In addition, the book reminds us that even though the sisters at Strake Jesuit put saltpeter in our Cheerios to keep us from masturbating, there’s really no stopping the process, even if the guilt stays with you to this day. While nobody has ever read this book, its inclusion in your book collection will ensure at least a cursory dry-hump from the intoxicated Yale co-ed you met at the “Vampire Weekend” concert last month. Be sure to look out for the last sentence in which Molly Bloom probably has an orgasm or is in the throes of Crohn’s disease. Joyce was also blind, so we can forgive him for not making a whole lot of sense (there has been speculation that Joyce wrote much of Ulysses on the back of his cat, accounting for much of the confusion within the text). The poet Ezra Pound perhaps put it best when he remarked, “Ulysses is a treat for anyone trapped under ice.”


Often cited as the only “true American art form,” jazz music is what happens when heroin happens. First popularized in the early 20th century, jazz incorporates West African musical traditions and European stuffiness, resulting in a cacophonous mishmash that makes one feel as if his or her genitals are creeping up and slowly eating his/her belly button. A vital part of America’s long history of misguided art forms, jazz is sure to spark furious debate among people who can’t admit they sing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the car when nobody is looking.

Jazz is, at its core, an interpretive medium. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other maestros of the genre are venerated within certain musical circles much the same way the idea of a space/time continuum is venerated by physicists, even though, after a while, ruminations on the subject lead one back to the inevitable conclusion that nothing is understandable in this crazy world, especially Ugg boots. If you feel you have the mettle, give jazz a chance. When you’ve discovered it’s over your head and you’d honestly just rather sit there listening to Shakira, don’t feel bad. You can always count on her and her hips don’t lie.

I hope our maiden voyage into the unforgiving sea of cultural literacy has proved helpful. Keep in mind; this is a long journey, but a journey well-worth taking. For how are we to navigate our desires, our fears, and ourselves if we cannot navigate the world around us?

GPS is a good answer, yes

[1] More on the French Revolution can be found in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Although, it is a far better thing if you start reading at Part III, as I this is where the nudity really kicks into high gear.

[2] There is a place that sells absinthe next to the McDonald’s on the Rue Duban.