David Klion (newsletter editor): It seems like half the millennials I know are having babies right now, like a post-pandemic (yes, I know, the pandemic never ended and never will) baby boom is underway. I’m not a dad yet, but I’m struck by how many new or expectant dads in my general demographic I know and how few books there are about what it means to be a dad at this apocalyptic historical moment.
That’s why I’m so grateful for Raising Raffi, the new book of essays by n+1 co-founder and Jewish Currents Soviet Issue informal adviser Keith Gessen. Gessen and his wife, the writer Emily Gould, are a few years older than me and also live in Brooklyn, and for the past six years they’ve both been chronicling the life of their first son, Raffi, for various publications. Raffi (who, disclosure, I’ve met a few times) is adorable and funny and clever, but at various points he’s also been a “terrorist” who hits and kicks and screams and generally defies authority. In recounting this, Gessen is unsparing, both of Raffi and of his own shortcomings as a father.
There are reasonable questions to ask about whether it’s ever fair to describe one’s young child in an unflattering light, which are thoughtfully explored in a review of Raising Raffi in the new issue of The Drift (a great little magazine that owes an obvious debt to Gessen’s n+1). But personally I found the book to be tender, honest, and appropriately humble about the awe-inspiring responsibility that parenthood confers. Raffi may not have consented to an examined life, but do any of us really consent to any aspect of our childhoods? What is never in doubt is that he has two loving, self-aware, and deeply engaged parents who are trying their best at an essential yet impossible task while confronting a pandemic, an out-of-control housing market, a segregated urban public school system, and the unique challenge of maintaining a Russian cultural identity in a child who may never get the chance to visit Russia. I learned a lot.
Raising Raffi has been published just in time for Father’s Day. The new dads and dads-to-be in your life would probably appreciate a copy.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Every night my wife and I wake up every few hours to feed our twin sons, so we’ve been working through a slate of TV shows selected to hit an attention sweet spot: engaging enough to help keep us up, easy enough to follow that our exhausted brains can keep up. After cruising through all seven seasons of Veep, we turned to Search Party, the dark comedy starring Alia Shawkat that ran from 2016 until this year. The show, which is streaming on HBO, follows a group of aimless and entitled millennials who, in search of something to give their lives meaning, become embroiled in a missing person case. I’ve been thinking of it as Girls meets Pretty Little Liars. But what sets Search Party apart is the way it evolves (or unravels) over the course of its five seasons. The absurdity ratchets up over and over as the show advances a thesis so hyperbolic that it totally works: that my generation’s desire for purpose is, at bottom, sociopathic narcissism. By the final season, any semblance of self-seriousness has dissipated as the show makes its final transformation—into a horror satire.
Serial comedies rarely conclude gracefully; many recent ones descend into repetition while amplifying the saccharine and sentimental at the expense of humor (see Broad City, The Office). But Search Party, by self-consciously jumping the shark and leaning into its most ridiculous impulses, stays clever and compelling until the end.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Fans of the Japanese “ramen Western” Tampopo: Criterion is currently streaming another film from the same director, Juzo Itami, and starring two of the same actors, Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsotumu Yamazaki, called A Taxing Woman, and you should watch it. It’s a comedy about the Japanese tax system, featuring dogged pursuits, underworld bosses, and critiques of capitalist greed, with a bit of sex. The movie was so successful in Japan it inspired a video game. (And if you haven’t seen Tampopo, you should watch that, too!).
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The New York Times described Selin Karadag—the main character in Elif Batuman’s new novel, Either/Or, a sophomore at Harvard of Turkish parentage—as someone who “overthinks” everything in her life, which is certainly true. She is, after all, a young woman who, early in her freshman year in a wonderful passage in the wonderful The Idiot, worked out the similarities between a box of tissues and books. But her overthinking is that of someone who loves books. As Selin said in The Idiot: “I wasn’t interested in society or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really mean.” And so she’s a careful reader who solipsistically seeks and finds references to her own life—particularly her unrequited love for Ivan, a Hungarian grad student in mathematics she has now unsuccessfully pursued through two volumes (three if we count his cameo in Batuman’s first book of essays on Russian literature, the delightful The Possessed).
Selin’s reading is varied, from Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary, a section of the two-volume work Either/Or which lends its title to this novel, to Eugene Onegin, to the Muslim mystic Rumi, to Chekhov’s short story “Lady with a Lapdog,” to Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers. Even the poetry and advice column in the local weekly published by the homeless provides food for reflection on her attempts to lead a real life and to experience physical love.
If at times her thoughts on great works seem willfully flip, they are the fruit of her genuine love for literature, her intolerance for what she considers exaggerated or false. Why does Proust go on about his mother’s goodnight kiss? Even a Proustian can feel a certain grudging respect for and comprehension of someone who can admit to “repulsion,” for Proust’s conflation of his love for his mother and romantic love. These are the opinions that might well be held by a 19-year-old at Harvard, and upon reflection, many of them are spot on. After all, as Geoff Dyer has written: “Just because a book is a classic doesn’t mean it’s good.” But they are also steps along the way to Selin’s discovery of herself and her authorial vocation and voice. Selin feels herself to be unattractive and has never been kissed, much less had sex, and her experiences along the path to sexual awakening read as true, as honest, and as unflinching as any such account.
Ironically, it’s far from Harvard, while traveling in Anatolia, that Selin finally discovers the unlikely book that speaks directly to her and explains what she wants and hopes to achieve: Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Batuman is unmistakably describing herself in this magnificent passage: “She wanted to fathom the human condition. She valued reading, travel, and relationships with radically different people: the kind of people who didn’t necessarily get the point of each other.”
Or there’s this, which explains what she and her creator ultimately learned from literature. She wasn’t going to borrow the experience of others. No, Selin tells herself, she “was going to remember, or discover, where everything came from. I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why.”