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Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): We’re in the middle of a crunch ahead of our next print issue, which means it can be hard to find the spare time, will, or brainpower to make it through anything longer than an essay or short story. (Foolishly, at the beginning of the summer, I started Robert Bolaño’s 900-page door-stopper, 2666. Needless to say, I haven’t made it very far.) Looking for something that wouldn’t make me feel guilty for abandoning it, I turned to Vintage’s 2013 collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov. The stories are, in miniature, much of what you may have loved about reading Nabokov’s novels. Many of the entries in this collection are meticulously constructed literary documents of emigration, campus life, the persistent allure of authoritarianism (at different points summoning Pnin, Lolita, and “the one about chess”). Classics like “The Vane Sisters” and “Signs and Symbols,” or even early-career bangers like “Spring in Fialta” and “Russian Spoken Here,” plumb VVN’s various formal and thematic fascinations—not to mention some of his personal antipathies—with enough mastery and in short enough space that I’m able to avoid the emotional baggage of another novel left unread.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): This week, I read Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, a play whose 2014 debut at Soho Rep I missed. The play is adapted from Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 work by the same name and recycles much of its source material’s dialogue to tell the same story: a melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation with predictably violent ends. Despite the vexed relationship between the two works, you cannot miss the adaption’s deviations from the original: The 2014 play begins with a character who introduces himself as a “black playwright”—identified in the text as BJJ, the author’s initials—and appears onstage nearly nude to lament the difficulty of finding white actors to inhabit the roles of racist slave owners for his adaptation of the Boucicault play. As the black playwright recounts a conversation with an imagined therapist—exploring his relationship to anger at white people and the misery of having to locate himself in a complex tangle of perception and representation—he paints his entire body white, so he can play the roles he cannot cast. He is then joined onstage by a double—a character called only “Playwright,” a stand-in for Boucicault himself—who paints himself red, preparing to play the Native American characters, attended to all the while by his “Assistant,” who is actually Native American. All three of these characters will play multiple roles in the drama to come—the adaptation itself—a clever rejoinder to the (white) therapist’s suggestion to pursue “colorblind casting.” The black playwright will play the “evil” white slave owner as well as the so-called “moral” one; the playwright will play the Native American character; and the Native American assistant will play two enslaved black men. The women characters will all inhabit only one role, and are cast straightforwardly.
The result is a mind-bending accumulation of layers, a proliferation of doppelgangers, all of which call every moment, every reading, into question. When Zoe, the titular “octoroon,” reveals to George (the “good” slave owner, played by the black playwright) that she has only been passing as white and thus cannot accept his love, she is, of course, not the only fraud. And how to read a scene where the two slave owners—both played by a single black man in effect fighting himself—engage in a brawl? Who is about to be lynched when the mob’s suspicion regarding a recent murder turns from the red (white) man to the white (black) one? The only people who seem on solid ground regarding their roles are two code-switching enslaved women—Minnie and Dido—who speak to one another in a contemporary black vernacular and to the white men (or the black playwright) in the self-consciously exaggerated “slave talk” of historical fiction. Their general indifference to the events of the play often lends a note of comic relief, but it also communicates a refreshing wholeness and solidity in themselves.
In the first scene of An Octoroon, the black playwright recounts a dream where he is being attacked by a swarm of bees, until he realizes that he is the swarm “And when they dissipate and fly away, / they leave nothing behind.” This image of confusion between inside and outside stayed with me throughout the play’s doubling and mirroring and reversals, a haunting encapsulation of race’s destabilizing and depersonalizing scripts.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Alexander Stille has made his name as an insightful chronicler of all things Italian, writing books on Italian Jews during the war, the Mafia, and Silvio Berlusconi. (He comes by this naturally, as the son of the former editor of the newspaper Corriere dela Sera.) He has now written his first book set in America, The Sullivanians. On the surface, the subject may seem an odd choice. The title refers to a cult of a few hundred people devoted to the theories of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, who lived communally on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This small group, whose reach rarely extended below West 72nd Street, hardly seems to merit an entire book. But Stille’s accomplishment is just how much he’s able to make of these people and what they signified.
The Sullivanians came together many years after Sullivan himself died, under the leadership of a man with no professional training as a therapist, Saul B. Newton (born Cohen). He took Sullivan’s vision—the essence of which can be summed up by the famous opening line from Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” “They’ll fuck you up, your mum and dad”—to its ultimate extreme. In the first place the nuclear family had to be destroyed, so even if members were married—a practice allowed only, Stille writes, “for practical reasons” like taxes or insurance—sex with other partners was mandatory. Kids were housed separately from their parents, and the obligatory promiscuity ensured no one could be sure who their father was. The children were routinely shipping off to boarding schools in faraway places, where they’d seldom hear from their parents. (Stille never asks why the Sullivans weren’t anti-natalists, not having children at all being the surest way to avoid fucking them up.)
The group’s life was otherwise structured by a paranoid and dictatorial form of left-wing politics. Newton, whose past included years in the Communist Party and a period as an officer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, exercised totalitarian power over the Sullivanians, demanding sex from any female member who caught his eye. Everything about the followers’ lives was determined by the leadership, and surveillance was nearly constant. To spread their idiosyncratic left-wing message, the Sullivanians set up a theater company, The Fourth Wall, based in the East Village, which also served as a vanity project for one of Newton’s serial spouses, a former actress. As Newton’s daughter Esther says in the book, the Sullivanians “combined the worst of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and the musical theater.”
How was it possible that intelligent people—including, at various points, Jackson Pollock, Judy Collins, Richard Elman, and Richard Price—surrendered their will to a mountebank like Newton? Sadly, the story of the Sullivanians follows a pattern familiar not only from the history of cults, but from the history of the left: In the name of the ultimate good, saving the human person, a group of misguided idealists accepted evil and refused to call it such.