Shabbat Reading List
Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content

Mar
4
2022

Mari Cohen (assistant editor): To dive into Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal, a compilation of essays on women writers and characters, when accustomed to reading contemporary criticism is like submerging into a pleasant shock of cool water. Hardwood has no time for all of the rules I thought I had learned about Commenting on Literature—don’t overly confuse protagonist with author; don’t make sweeping generalizations about what the work suggests about humanity; don’t speak for an assumed “we” of an audience—as she proceeds to undertake character studies of women inside and outside of texts. She considers the personalities and motivations at the heart of the contrasting styles of the Bronte sisters, the thwarted dreams of Zelda Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s life of devotion. Her analysis of motivations and emotions is ever-confident and precise: “Falling in love with M. Heger laid the ground for the emotional intensity and recklessness in Charlotte Brontë’s novels. She experienced to the fullest a deep, scalding frustration. The uselessness of her love, the dreadful inappropriateness and unavailability of its object, turned out to be one of those sources of pain that are also the springs of knowledge.” Yet she also, at times, turns to simple emotional reflection: "The last years of Emily Brontë’s life are distressing to think about.”

In Hardwick’s hands, women are never reduced to their struggles against patriarchy, never made social parables; yet they are never quite free from the impositions, weaknesses, and underestimations of the men in their lives. (Many critics, in Hardwickian fashion, have read the collection in the context of Hardwick’s own processing of the betrayal of her ex-husband Robert Lowell, which adds an interesting weight to her analysis of how, for example, Thomas Carlyle takes his wife Jane for granted—though it would be a mistake to reduce any of the analysis here to personal projection.) I can think of few better testaments than Seduction and Betrayal to the fact that criticism can be as thrilling and affecting as the art it depicts.

Jacob Plitman (publisher): Some have claimed that video games are “the future of storytelling.” I have no idea what that means. Game plots are usually garbage that, at best, you endure because the particular game mechanics are fun. You are chopping someone with a sword. You are shooting up an airport. Why? Literally who cares. Also, I don’t know what it means for “storytelling” to have a past or future—but that’s not for the Shabbat Reading List. That is more of a “jewishcurrents.org” vibe.

Anyway, I want to convince you to buy a game called Disco Elysium. The game will work on your computer, no matter how lousy it is. It was made by an art collective led by an Estonian middle school dropout.

As Disco Elysium begins, the screen is black. You are in a death-like sleep. Through dialogue choices in a small menu, you engage two characters: your screeching Limbic System, and your growling Ancient Reptilian Brain. You would like to stay dead. But, they explain, unfortunately you have to wake up. Upon waking, it becomes clear that you have managed to do enough drugs to forget everything you know—the year, your name, and anything about the murder case that, as you learn, you have been investigating for some time. You are a trope. You are an alcoholic amnesiac murder detective.

What follows is a China Miéville-esque noir set in the strike-ridden city of Revachol, which is something like Marseilles plus Tallinn, run by the Dutch East India Company, and still in ruins from a revolutionary uprising decades ago. A company-hired mercenary has been murdered, lynched on a nearby tree. You walk through lushly drawn urban decay, bouncing between conversations with beautifully-acted strangers and chats among the brilliantly-written voices in your own drug-addled head. It functions, basically, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, except the pages can talk to each other, you’re not allowed to go backwards, and the writing is superb. But the stakes aren’t a murder. They are communism, liberalism, fascism, or ... Disco.

It is the confluence of the player’s fear of missing the right choices and the city of Revachol’s own post-revolutionary decay that gives the game a special power. Revachol made all the wrong choices some time ago. You are hung over. The city is hung over. You grope the body of a murdered city in the search for a murderer. But in the end something else finds you.

18/10

Dylan Saba (JC fellow): “Man, I miss the old Kanye.”

There isn’t much anyone can say about Kanye West anymore that hasn’t already been said. In fact, whatever you think about him, he’s probably said himself, somewhere in the countless hours of interviews, stream-of-consciousness rants, performances, and social media meltdowns that have colored his past two decades as a cultural fixture. So what is there possibly to gain from watching several more hours of unfiltered Kanye? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is decisively not a portrait of an artist warped by fame, media, and unlimited attention. What jeen-yuhs—a three-part Netflix docuseries centered mostly around Kanye’s initial rise to national prominence in the early 2000s—truly depicts is a portrait of a man unchanged.

I will admit: Kanye has had a profound impact on my understanding of and relation to art since I first really started listening to his records in 2005 when I was 12 years old. So for me, the archival footage of early moments in his career animates the lore of Kanye’s rise, and I can’t help but soy-face as the events narrated in “Last Call,” the closing track on Kanye’s The College Dropout, are literally depicted on screen.

But what is really so striking about the documentary (full disclosure, I’ve only seen the first two episodes) is just how recognizable the Kanye on screen is to the contemporary Kanye media consumer. He’s arrogant, yes, but beyond that, he’s spinning up delusions of grandeur so fantastical, shadow-boxing people so beyond the scope of his milieu, and obsessing with such a single-minded focus on achieving artistic permanence, that you can’t help but watch with awe as his systematically fulfills his own prophecy. He’s celebratory at times, but he’s mostly deeply troubled, despite his successes, at the distance between where he is and where he feels he ought to be. What jeen-yuhs makes clear is that when Kanye raps “I miss the old Kanye” on The Life of Pablo, he’s making fun of each and every one of us for thinking he ever left.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The roman noir provides many of the same pleasures as its cinematic sibling, the film noir. Both present a dark, cynical, unforgiving, and largely accurate picture of the rot that is America. Horace McCoy’s 1935 classic, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is perhaps the most unrelentingly dismal and brilliant examples of this pulp genre. Its influence on some of the greatest of European writers and novels, particularly and unsurprisingly the French, is unmistakable. Camus’s The Stranger and Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends are unquestionably marked by works like those of McCoy’s.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is one of the great novels of Hollywood, even if, unlike What Makes Sammy Run? or The Last Tycoon, there is no film set in its pages. This is a novel of the dream of Hollywood, of the illusion that the surest way out of the misery of the Depression is to become like the stars onscreen at the local movie palace. Gloria, one of the novel’s two main characters, has come to Hollywood from Texas, and though she’s worked as an extra a few times, she’s not all that pretty and hasn’t been taken on by the central casting office that provides extras to the big films. Her dream for the moment, then, is to be nothing but a background figure. Robert, her co-lead, has come west from Arkansas, dreaming of being a director, of making small artsy films about the common man, of reaching the same heights as Mamoulian, of Borzage, of Eisenstein.

Both have failed miserably, and when they meet they decide the only way to survive is to participate in a marathon dance contest—they and hundreds of others must dance continuously until only one couple is left. That winning couple will win $1,000 and, who knows, maybe make contact with a star or a director and climb to the top.

But this is America, and the motley crew of failures on the dance floor are nothing but representatives of the mass of Americans, deluding themselves that riches are out there, that all you need is a break. And in order to get that break they’re willing to torture and debase themselves before a cheering crowd of “morons” as they’re called by the organizers, morons all too happy to watch the degradation of others like them.

Everything is degraded or capable of being degraded: dancers consent to wed for pay for the crowd’s benefit, or to engage in murderous races within the dances just to sate the crowd’s blood lust. The occasional appearance of a film star—most of them long-forgotten now—makes it all worthwhile.

If Robert still thinks his chance is waiting for him, Gloria has no such illusion. Her idea of fun as she says is to “go sit and hate a bunch of people”. She’s given up on Hollywood and life. “There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me—who want to die but haven’t got the guts.” She never develops the guts herself, but she has figured out a way to get the job done. After all, they shoot horses, don’t they?

This slim volume does more to destroy the American Dream than almost any other work of fiction. It should be required reading.