Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In some ways, my experience of blindness is radically different from Andrew Leland’s, recounted movingly and insightfully in his new memoir, The Country of the Blind. Leland suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that takes years or decades to obliterate the sufferer’s vision, while my trip to blindness was a rapid one: Over two nights, each of my eyes was partially blinded while I was sleeping due to non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (a stroke of the eyes). And while Leland’s condition will gradually take him into total darkness, mine goes no further than the original damage. But for now, both of us are, as Leland so aptly puts it, “too blind to be sighted, too sighted to be blind.”
Leland does a magnificent job situating his own experience within the politics of the blind community. He thoughtfully examines contested features of that world, such as the white cane—the most obvious marker of blindness, which some are reluctant to use out of shame. At one point Leland, who describes himself as proudly “out” as a blind man, relates an incident in which he was mocked as a phony for using the cane when he has partial sight; he reacts angrily, though not as forcefully as I have on the handful of occasions when people have questioned my legitimacy as a “truly” blind person. The Country of the Blind considers the way canes have become a disputed object, showing how the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest organization fighting for the blind, considers foldable canes, like the one I carry, to be anathema. “A sixty-inch long, unfoldable white cane is impossible to hide,” Leland writes. “And that’s a good thing. Because blindness isn’t something to be hidden!” And canes are not the only embattled aspect of blind life. The Country of the Blind traces the ins and outs of the debates between advocacy organizations and blind individuals over accommodations like audible pedestrian signals, which some support but others call belittling. I was shocked to find that many of the people Leland meets, for whom independence is paramount, proudly reject assistance when out and about. I have written elsewhere about the callous indifference I experience from the sighted; I think it’s the least anyone can do to offer to help me, say, at busy street corners, where I experience sheer terror.
Throughout his book, Leland avoids the saccharine tone adopted by Frank Bruni in his acclaimed but insipid The Beauty of Dusk, in which the author’s partial blindness is framed positively, as a source of goodness. For Leland, blindness is far more complex. The obstacles it produces allow him to experience his strength in overcoming them—sometimes with enjoyment, like the pleasure he has found in learning Braille. But he does not obscure the difficulties, and he is clear about his immense sorrow that the day will come when his wife and son will disappear from his sight. Like Leland, I haven’t let my blindness prevent me from living as fully as I can, and the experience has taught me that I have internal resources I’d never otherwise have accessed. Even so, I’d gladly sacrifice that lesson to regain the ability to read physical books, to see paintings of all sizes and media, to read subtitles without special glasses, and to simply cross the street.
Helen Betya Rubinstein (contributing writer): On at least three recent subway trips, I’ve been subjected to Tinder’s “It starts with a swipe” campaign, a peculiar effort at rebranding Tinder, the original hookup app, as a marriage factory. The ads feature gender-ambiguous, race-ambiguous bodies doing normative relationshippy things, underneath taglines like “Finally Having Kids,” “Hanging Out in the Daytime,” or “A Toothbrush at Their Place.” These unambiguously young and thin bodies pose in a landscape that—with its cars, furniture, and pastels—evokes the 1950s. The taglines are styled after the 1950s, too, in a syrupy cursive script. “Comfortable Silences,” “Proving Astrology Right,” “Someone to Go to Heaven With” (because why leave out that sweet sweet Christian flavor?). It’s Tinder wrapped in old-fashioned nostalgia and denuded of sex, as though to say, “You think this is the heyday of Gen Z? Fooled ya. You’re all cast as actors in Grease.”
And then there’s the one tagline that, I admit, never fails to elicit an emotional reaction from me: “Realizing You’re Not Dead Inside.” Whoever came up with the idea of making every unpartnered subway rider wonder if the life they are living is one in which they are DEAD is a cruel genius.
As an antidote to all this, and on the topic of feeling dead inside, I’d like to recommend Ruth Madievsky’s newish novel All-Night Pharmacy, in which a lost twenty-something follows first her sister and then a madcap series of mysterious characters to disentangle from her family, face her Soviet Jewish history, and become her own person. I admit I’m partial to any American book featuring Kishinev, home of Madievsky and also my dad. I’m also partial to novels written by poets, which tend to be full of zingers, as All-Night Pharmacy is. But this is also a novel where relationships evolve and dissolve, where a pleasing chaos chases our protagonist through hospitals, countries, drugs, and bars, and where her queerness and eventual pursuit of relationships that are realer than romance are what save the protagonist from feeling internally dead. Like a couple of other recent books (Milk Fed, The Golem of Brooklyn; is this a trend?) All-Night Pharmacy offers us a golem—“Silence creates golems,” one character opines. But, blessedly, there is no marriage plot.
Siddhartha Mahanta (contributing editor): Some television shows become burdened with the purpose of defining their generation. For many now-creaky millennials, that show was Lena Dunham’s Girls, both an homage to and a critique of the gender and sexual politics and character and plot tropes of classic screwball comedies, Nora Ephron’s work, and Sex and the City. Over six seasons, we watch self-important aspiring writer Hannah, played by Dunham, and her friends, navigating young chaotic life in 2010s Greenpoint, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. They fall in and out of love, embrace and then abandon creative obsessions, fuck and fuck over one another, grow and regress, discovering varying degrees of grace and foolishness in the process. Through it all, the thread that binds the characters, both major and minor, is a tendency towards self-combustion: they live “the dream, one mistake at a time,” as the season-one tagline promises.
Dunham’s a masterful provocateur, directing arcs suffused with chaos, meanness, and revelation, from Hannah’s increasingly intolerable selfishness in the wake of her editor’s death to Adam’s twisted sexual relationships and Marnie’s awful treatment of multiple beaus. The resulting show is frequently shocking, sometimes moving, and often quite ugly. The series’ superb bottle episodes feel like short plays or films, burning through short fuses that keep the dramatic tension high and character revelations coming fast and furious. While the jokes didn’t always didn’t land for me and the plotting often seemed meandering and chaotic—perhaps mirroring what it is to Be Young—I stayed with Girls. Watching unlikeable characters failing over and over again, slouching further and further towards sociopathy, has its pleasures.
Over time, however, it became less enlightening to watch this cringey dramedy. Jessa’s descent into darkness, Shoshanna’s irrationally sunny innocence, and Marnie’s capacity for self-delusion began to feel less like hallmarks of layered, three-dimensional people, and more like a potpourri of quirks and ephemeral manias. It didn’t help that the ‘boys’—Adam, the terrifying-but-charismatic aspiring actor and recovering alcoholic, and Ray, the curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold barista—appeared to deepen in complexity and nuance at the expense of the titular girls, who often came to feel like shards of Dunham’s rich, provocative personality rather than autonomous, flesh-and-blood humans. (Among the girls, Shoshanna may be the exception: her journey from naive and invisible among the clique to confident, capable, and fully actualized, is a triumph.)
To my mind, the show’s animating impulse was the experience of experience—of writing, of acting, of copious casual sex, of moving to Japan, of watching a parents come out, of substance abuse, of being intentionally bad at your very normy job, of flaming out of a world-class writing workshop, of motherhood—without an effort to turn those experiences into something narratively coherent and organic. Maybe this was Dunham’s real project: to interrogate whether Having The Experience can serve as an adequate substitute for Becoming A Person with a real, earned sense of responsibility for the emotional wreckage you cause.
As someone who spent most of his 20s mired in self-loathing and disgust over his perceived creative shortcomings, watching Girls felt like a bit of an attack, but the show tempers its vitriolic mockery with just enough empathy. So come for the mess, but stay for the stink of shame hanging on all the characters like a bad hangover.