Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): There’s a meme of a Venn diagram that has circulated a lot these past two years: in one circle “Apocalypse,” in another “Having to go to work,” with an arrow pointing to the overlap that says “You are here.” I’ve been thinking about this meme as I consider my deep enjoyment of Station Eleven—the HBO miniseries about a civilization-ending pandemic—despite its obvious flaws. Based on the book by Emily St. John Mandel (which I haven’t read and don’t plan to), the show requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief: The logic of the spread of the virus feels dodgy, and there are whole character arcs that feel unearned or just sort of random. And yet, there is something in the portrayal of the end of everything and the human attempts at regeneration in its wake that I’m finding both soothing and agitating in generative ways.
As suggested by the Venn diagram meme, it’s become harder and harder to reconcile the dissonance between the manifest consequences of severe political and environmental collapse and how they’ve been assimilated into our “normal” lives—all of it heavily mediated by technology. In this light, the clean break, the real end of everything, presents as a kind of pleasing fantasy, even despite the assumed violence and hardship of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a useful exercise to think about what would be worth keeping in the event of totalizing catastrophe and what is better left behind. One could argue it may be the only useful exercise left, that it should act as a compass for how we behave, and approach politics, in the here and now. For all my current exhaustion and cynicism, I surprised myself with how moved I felt by moments that transparently sought to foreground the fundamentals of human connection, (pro)creation, and care. Without giving too much away, the penultimate episode is an incredible set piece in this regard, almost independent of the rest of the show.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Last year, as part of a special section on the German-language poet Paul Celan, we had the honor of publishing a beautiful, gnomic comic by Anne Carson about Celan’s “Todtnauberg,” written in the wake of his fateful encounter with the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Seeking more of Carson’s generative engagement with Celan, I recently read her 2002 book Economy of the Unlost, which sets the 20th-century, Romanian-born Celan in conversation with the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Keos. The pairing is unexpected, as is the banner under which Carson unites them: the idea of poetic economy. By interweaving an array of seemingly disparate approaches to that concept—from the literal (noting that Simonides is traditionally understood as the first Western poet to write poems for money) to the metaphorical (reading Celan’s relationship to German through Karl Marx’s comparison of money to translated language)—Carson produces a dazzling study of both poets, full of rigorous readings and insightful digressions. For instance, in a discussion of Celan’s “The Sluice,” Carson draws on a discussion with a rabbi friend to read the relationship the poem sets up between two Jewish memorial prayers: “Kaddish, although used for commemorative purpose, is not essentially a word of memory but rather a word that covers over the memory of human loss with praise of God’s glory. Yizkor does not cover over, it insists on remembering; indeed it insists that God do the remembering alongside us, Yizkor Jews and all.”
I was happy to discover this same theme in the next book I picked up, Gloria Gervitz’s Migrations: Poem, 1976–2020, translated from the Spanish by Mark Schafer (which we recently excerpted). In a conversation with Schafer that serves as the afterword to this extraordinary book-length poem, Gervitz describes telling her mother, who says she does not find the Kaddish consoling, that “the Kaddish is a song of praise to God and also a song of thanks.” She goes on: “Poetry . . . always contains something of the Kaddish: although it can speak of the saddest things, it really is a song of praise to the Word.” I loved the way this interpretation opens up Migrations’ recurring reference to the mourning prayer (“who is praying? is it me? / who is answering? / where do these words come from? // and who will say Kaddish for me?”) and illuminates its exploration of the ways praise and pain are intertwined. I keep coming back to this early, shattering stanza: “but this is not loneliness / it is not sadness / this flow is pure joy / though joy is always sad at its root / it is delivered like death without your knowing / it is this not knowing that flows / it enters as a body enters love.”
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): Last year, the Marxist feminist writer Silvia Federici—whose famous 1970s activism calling for paid wages for housework received renewed attention as the pandemic exposed our dependence on care work—quietly released the essay collection Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism, a compilation of seven readable, sometimes overlapping essays written between the 1970s and today. Reading Federici on Marx as my reading group slowly makes its way through Capital, Vol. 1 was clarifying. Federici clearly elucidates how her feminist theory builds on Marx’s framework: She theorizes the feminized work of “social reproduction”—feeding, clothing, housing, and sexually satisfying the worker so that he is replenished to return to work the next day—as essential to preserving labor’s ability to generate surplus value for the capitalist and thereby an integral function of the capitalist system, and says that Marx missed certain historical developments that indicated just how much bourgeois European society depended on women’s reproductive labor. She is unsparing in pointing out what she sees as Marx’s blind spots from a contemporary standpoint, focusing particularly on the oft-misunderstood fact that Marx, in fact, could be quite complimentary of, and even awed by, the accomplishments of capitalism, since he viewed it as a necessary step before imminent socialist revolution, and saw the accomplishments of industrialization as necessary to usher in a worker-owned world. One hundred and fifty years later, with no such revolution to be seen and eco-catastrophe looming, Federici offers a compelling argument for rethinking Marx’s celebration of man’s potential for technical domination of nature.
I was especially interested in Federici’s writing on sex in “Origins and Development of Sexual Work,” in which she claims that despite a new illusion of sexual liberation, women remain in thrall to what she calls “sexual work,” and are forced to embody their sexuality under conditions that often make it feel like arduous labor performed for the purpose of male pleasure and male replenishment. If female pleasure and the female orgasm have become new societal priorities, Federici argues that this just creates new pressure for women not only to perform sexual labor but to achieve, and perform, enjoyment. “While our grandmothers could go to sleep in peace after a day of hard work with the excuse of a migraine, we, their liberated granddaughters, feel guilty when we refuse to have sex, do not actively participate in it, or even fail to enjoy it,” she writes. Parts of the argument feel reminiscent of the second-wave “sex wars,” and there’s surely much to discuss and critique here, especially given how Federici only takes up the subject of heterosexual and cisgender sex, making her theorizing incomplete. Still, in an era in which women are urged to “girlboss” their way into better sex—studying listicles and instagram graphics, buying toys, downloading sex therapy apps—while men face few similar expectations, it’s hard not to think that Federici has hit on something here.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve loved Joshua Ferris’s books since Then We Came to the End was published in 2008. His cynical, smart-alecky tone has led me to look forward to each new book. His latest, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, breaks with Ferris’s established mold. Its characters, and its vision of life and of fiction, have haunted me in the weeks since I read it.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes is presented as the biography of the title character, a mid-century middle-American who has been diagnosed with cancer (or maybe not), and whose life has been eaten up by his fruitless search for success in business, marriage, and fatherhood. As Ferris writes of Charlie, “Looking for more has been, so far, just a guaranteed way of losing it all.”
Ferris keeps us on our toes throughout, and the novel is far more than a deconstructing of the American dream—it is also a questioning of the nature of fiction, of its rights and obligations. What do you tell? What do you not tell? By presenting the story as a memoir, Ferris complicates the matter even further, raising the question of what is the truth of someone’s life.
It’s here that Ferris provides a remarkable passage about who we are. “For every life,” he writes, there is “not one history but as many as there are people who observed and participated in that life; hundreds if not thousands, of accounts for just one of the billions of beings who have lived and died. If we are many it’s not just because we are a web of contradictions but because everyone has a vision of us, one that, for that person , is the truth and so is the truth.” Charlie Barnes is this in spades, with his wives, friends, kids, co-workers, and neighbors all seeing him differently, all in equally valid ways.
But this is also a moving and profound novel on fatherhood, on both the good and the damage done to us by our fathers that we then pass on to our progeny. As Charlie deals with his cancer, Ferris shows us both Charlie the self-absorbed prick and Charlie the man looking to do and be good. The final twist in the novel perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it’s proof of Ferris’s gift that it does.