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Jelani Cobb on Bannon’s banishment; builder’s lament; mural Trump; photo flare-up; Adam Davidson on creating a foolproof dollar. ONWARD AND UPWARD WITH THE ARTS

Sam Knight


Roz Chast


David Remnick


Emily Nussbaum


Ian Parker


Richard Burbridge


Dana Spiotta Patton Oswalt Karen Russell Darryl Pinckney

42 46 54 58

D.I.Y. Deep Cut Object Permanence A Sentimental Education

Miranda July


“The Metal Bowl”

Back to the Garden A reality program’s botched pursuit of Eden. COMIC STRIP

“The Seven Ages of Me and TV” LETTER FROM TEL AVIV

Occupational Hazards What can a thriller reveal about a conflict? ANNALS OF TELEVISION

Riot Girl The rule-breaking showrunning of Jenji Kohan. PROFILES

Mr. America Ken Burns focusses on the Vietnam War. PORTFOLIO

Television’s Comedy Auteurs Funny writers who turn the camera around. SCREENS



Adrian Chen


Adam Kirsch Dan Chiasson

84 87 88

Hua Hsu


Stephen Dunn Derek Mahon

28 49

Fake news from the radio age to today. BOOKS

The many personae of Fernando Pessoa. Briefly Noted Ange Mlinko’s brainy concentrations. POP MUSIC

The return of LCD Soundsystem. POEMS

“The Inheritance” “At the Window” COVER

Bruce Eric Kaplan DRAWINGS T. S. McCoy, David

“Screen Time”

Sipress, Will McPhail, Peter Kuper, Avi Steinberg, Farley Katz, Liana Finck, Carolita Johnson, Edward Steed, Jason Adam Katzenstein, Maggie Larson SPOTS Allan Sanders

CONTRIBUTORS Sam Knight (“Back to the Garden,” p. 24) is a journalist based in London. Karen Russell (“Object Permanence,” p. 54) has published four books, including the short-story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” and the novel “Swamplandia!” Richard Burbridge (Portfolio, p. 62) is a British photographer who has lived in New York for more than two decades. He shot his first portrait for The New Yorker, of the jazz critic Albert Murray, in 1996.

Emily Nussbaum (“Riot Girl,” p. 38) is

the magazine’s television critic. In 2016, she received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Patton Oswalt (“Deep Cut,” p. 46) is a

standup comedian, a writer, and an actor. He won an Emmy and a Grammy for his 2016 comedy special, “Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping.” Roz Chast (Comic Strip, p. 31), a New Yorker

cartoonist since 1978, is the author of the graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”

Dana Spiotta (“D.I.Y.,” p. 42) has writ-

Ian Parker (The Talk of the Town, p. 20;

ten four novels, including “Stone Arabia” and “Innocents and Others.” She teaches at the Syracuse University M.F.A. program.

“Mr. America,” p. 50) began writing for the magazine in 1994 and became a staff writer in 2000.

Darryl Pinckney (“A Sentimental Educa-

tion,” p. 58) is the author of, most recently, the novel “Black Deutschland.” Sarah Larson (Portfolio, p. 62) writes

about pop culture, including a weekly column on podcasts, for

Miranda July (Fiction, p. 72), a filmmaker, an artist, and a writer, is the author of three books, including, most recently, “The First Bad Man.” Derek Mahon (Poem, p. 49) is an Irish poet. His most recent collection, “Rising Late,” will be published in November.


In honor of our first Television Issue, a look back at how the magazine has covered the medium over the years.

VIDEO PORTFOLIO Issa Rae and other television visionaries pitch left-field ideas for new shows.

SUBSCRIBERS: Get access to our magazine app for tablets and smartphones at the

App Store,, or Google Play. (Access varies by location and device.) 4



NEWYORKER.COM Everything in the magazine, and more.


Adam Gopnik, in his essay on American Buddhism, strikes an elegant balance between respect for Buddhist spirituality and efforts to “secularize” specific practices, but he misses some crucial distinctions (A Critic at Large, August 7th & 14th). As Gopnik explains, many people find meditation acceptable but struggle with the concept of reincarnation, despite Buddhism’s injunctions against overliteral interpretation. Buddhists do not see physical death as the seismic event that many others do, so there can be reincarnations within the frame of a single human life. And what could be more American than reinventing yourself ? Contrary to what Gopnik writes, Buddhism does not teach that there is no self. (Clearly, my “self ” is typing this letter and your “self ” is reading it.) Rather, Buddhism says that selves are so changeable and dependent on external circumstances that the idea of a fixed self is an illusion: all is change. Seeing this requires focus. In other words: don’t do something, just sit there. Finally, Buddhism is not quite as unscientific as Gopnik intimates. Buddha advised against simply believing him, suggesting that we instead try his techniques (meditation, kindness) and see if they work. They do. Brendan Kelly Professor of Psychiatry Trinity College, Dublin Dublin, Ireland Gopnik’s essay, graceful and informed though it is, offers the perspective of a curious observer rather than that of an experienced practitioner. As a result, his detached observations are rather at odds with the spirit of Buddhist teachings, which regard direct experience rather than discursive thought as the primary basis of understanding. One of the first aims of Zen practice, in particular, is to cut through the veil of conceptual thought to the impermanent, interdependent

reality that abstract concepts reify and conceal. That is why Zen practitioners sit in stillness and in silence for hours on end, releasing the thoughts that come and go. As always, Gopnik shows himself to be a skillful manager of complex concepts and nuanced reflection, but, like others who seek to understand the dharma, he would do well to take the advice of Zen teachers past and present: sit down and shut up. Ben Howard Alfred, N.Y. Gopnik’s essay was thought-provoking and enlightening. But, at one point, he writes, “A faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby.” From what or from where does he draw this conclusion? He goes on to speculate that a general acceptance of Buddhism, like that of yoga or green-juicing, might dumb down its original worthy intent. But whether anyone thinks that yoga, or green juice, or Buddhism has been dumbed down is precisely the kind of needless context that Buddhism itself, as portrayed in Gopnik’s article, seeks to eliminate from our perspective. Matthew Reynolds North Hollywood, Calif. Gopnik’s article is almost entirely silent on Buddhism’s central doctrine of compassion. He concludes that sometimes it “helps to sit and breathe.” True, but it helps far more to help: not merely “How can I help myself ?” but “How can I help you?” To cultivate such a way of being in the world is to transcend the ordinary self and enter a supranatural state. David Durgin Bloomfield, Conn.

• Letters should be sent with the writer’s name, address, and daytime phone number via e-mail to Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. We regret that owing to the volume of correspondence we cannot reply to every letter. THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017




Korean pop music—characterized by visual outrageousness, factory-made superstars, and sounds and styles that reflect Western pop like a fun-house mirror—became widely known to Americans after the world-conquering success of “Gangnam Style.” Now it hits Off Broadway, in Ars Nova’s “KPOP” (starting previews Sept. 5, at A.R.T./New York), an immersive piece presented with Woodshed Collective and Ma-Yi, with music by Helen Park and Max Vernon, about a new record label on the eve of its launch. PHOTOGRAPH BY MACIEK JASIK



As You Like It The Public’s Public Works initiative presents an open-air musical adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, written by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery and featuring a two-hundred-person cast of professional actors and community members. (Delacorte, Central Park. Enter at 81st St. at Central Park W. 212-967-7555. Sept. 1-5.) The Baroness—Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair The Danish playwright Thor Bjørn Krebs wrote this drama, presented by the Scandinavian American Theatre Company, about the “Out of Africa” author’s romance with a younger poet when she was sixty-two. (Clurman, 410 W. 42nd St. 212-2396200. Previews begin Sept. 2.) Charm Philip Dawkins’s play, at MCC, is inspired by Miss Gloria Allen, a black transgender woman who taught an etiquette class at a Chicago L.G.B.T.Q. community center. (Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher St. 212-352-3101. Previews begin Aug. 31.) A Clockwork Orange Jonno Davies plays the ultraviolent teen gang leader in this British adaptation of the dystopian Anthony Burgess novel from 1962. (New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. 212-239-6200. Previews begin Sept. 2.) For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday Sarah Ruhl’s new play, directed by Les Waters, stars Kathleen Chalfant as a woman who returns to her home-town children’s theatre, fifty years after playing Peter Pan. (Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. 212-279-4200. In previews.) Inanimate The Flea inaugurates its new home with Nick Robideau’s play, directed by Courtney Ulrich, about an awkward young woman who falls in love with a Dairy Queen sign. (20 Thomas St. 212-352-3101. Opens Aug. 30.) KPOP Set at a Korean pop-music factory, this immersive musical has music and lyrics by Helen Park and Max Vernon, a book by Jason Kim, and direction by Teddy Bergman. Ars Nova presents, with Woodshed Collective and Ma-Yi Theatre Company. (A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd St. 212-352-3101. Previews begin Sept. 5.) On the Shore of the Wide World This new play by Simon Stephens (“Heisenberg”), directed by Neil Pepe and featuring Blair Brown, follows a family in Stockport, England, over nine eventful months. (Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St. 866-811-4111. In previews.) The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias Michael Yates Crowley’s dark comedy, directed by Tyne Rafaeli for the Playwrights Realm, is about a young sexual-assault survivor navigat

ing lawyers, guidance counsellors, and Wikipedia. (The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St. 646-223-3010. In previews.)

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A & In the Blood Suzan-Lori Parks modernizes “The Scarlet Letter” in two plays. “Fucking A,” directed by Jo Bonney, recasts Hawthorne’s heroine as an abortionist trying to free her son from jail. “In the Blood,” directed by Sarah Benson, centers on an impoverished mother of five desperately seeking help from friends and former lovers. (Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. 212244-7529. In previews.)


Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 “There’s a war going on out there somewhere” are the chilling first words of this rollicking Russophilic musical, which turns a seventy-page slice of “War and Peace” into an exuberant night on the town. After originating at Ars Nova and moving to a tent in the meatpacking district, Rachel Chavkin’s production preserves its immersive flavor on Broadway—a remarkable feat, involving a set of winding runways (by Mimi Lien), a twinkling constellation of chandeliers (the lighting is by Bradley King), and complimentary pierogi (from Russian Samovar). Like an English major on a joyful bender, the writercomposer Dave Malloy homes in on Tolstoy’s lovelorn aristocrats: schlubby Pierre (Malloy), refined Natasha (the angelic Denée Benton), and cocky Anatole (Lucas Steele, strutting like Zoolander). Malloy’s script can’t always keep it all on track—Tolstoy’s omniscient, rock-solid narration is missed—but the show’s eagerness to delight every last audience member is impossible to resist. (Imperial, 249 W. 45th St. 212-2396200. Through Sept. 3.) Prince of Broadway The producer-director Harold Prince, who is eighty-nine, has had a Broadway career for the ages: after working for George Abbott on shows like “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” he became a hit-maker himself, with a résumé that spans from “Cabaret” to “The Phantom of the Opera.” His oeuvre could be a lens for the history of the modern Broadway musical, but, curiously, this Manhattan Theatre Club revue, directed by Prince (with Susan Stroman), doesn’t tell that story, or any. A cast of nine cycles through greatest hits—“Send in the Clowns,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”—with varying success. (The highlight is Tony Yazbeck’s furious tap rendition of “The Right Girl,” from “Follies.”) A few quoted platitudes from Prince connect the dots, but we hear astonishingly little about his life, his process, or his pivotal collaboration with Stephen Sondheim. The result is a “Best of Broadway” compilation disk brought tentatively to life. (Samuel J. Friedman, 261 W. 47th St. 212-239-6200.) The Suitcase Under the Bed Since 2010, the Mint, led by Jonathan Bank, the company’s artistic director, has presented three

odd and fascinating full-length plays by Teresa Deevy, a deaf Irish writer who had a brief but fruitful collaboration with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in the nineteen-thirties. This is an evening of four short plays (three of them never before produced), retrieved, as the umbrella title describes, from a spare room in Deevy’s home, in Waterford. During the course of these brief but loaded works, enacted by a lovely ensemble of seven under Bank’s direction, Deevy casts her eye on all strata of society. Love unexpected, unachieved, lost, or bargained for is at the core of these sketches, but always with a mysterious, not so wry twist that reveals something deep in the Irish, and the human, character. (Beckett, 410 W. 42nd St. 212-239-6200.)

Summer Shorts Two evenings, each about ninety minutes in length, consist of three playlets by American playwrights. Series A is the stronger collection, with Melissa Ross’s “Jack” at the vanguard. As directed by Mimi O’Donnell, Quincy DunnBaker and Claire Karpen are funny, real, and devastating as a divorced couple with one last thing to share. Alan Zweibel’s “Playing God” is your basic comic mashup of theology and squash. And Graham Moore’s “Acolyte” puts the philosophy, and the person, of Ayn Rand in a setup that recalls the quartet from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” with some Pinteresque sexual menace thrown in for flavor. In Series B, Chris Cragin-Day’s “A Woman” imagines a conversation between two old friends, now pastor and parishioner, that explores the confluence of religion, politics, and feminism. Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds’s “Wedding Bash” is a satirical four-hander set in the wake of a destination wedding that was either the best or the worst party ever. And Neil LaBute’s “Break Point” takes us behind the scenes to view a collusion between two longtime tennis rivals at the French Open. (59E59, at 59 E. 59th St. 212-2794200. Through Sept. 2.) The Terms of My Surrender Michael Moore’s mostly one-man show (special guests make appearances) is filled with good will toward the audience, and lots of self-regard. Over two or so intermissionless hours, the liberal filmmaker talks about how our democracy ended up in the toilet, why Americans in general were ready for Trump, and why the folks on either coast weren’t, and still aren’t. Moore is a rousing, everyday kind of guy, filled with tremendous need—a need to be seen and heard. That’s touching at first, as are the stories he tells about his activism, and how it has led, in some cases, to potential physical harm. But then Moore and the show run out of steam, because, for the most part, he’s preaching to the converted. (Belasco, 111 W. 44th St. 212-239-6200.)


Anastasia Broadhurst. • Bandstand Jacobs. • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory LuntFontanne. • Come from Away Schoenfeld. • Curvy Widow Westside. • Dear Evan Hansen Music Box. • A Doll’s House, Part 2 Golden. • Groundhog Day August Wilson. • Hamlet Public. Through Sept. 3. • Hello, Dolly! Shubert. • In & of Itself Daryl Roth. • 1984 Hudson. • The Play That Goes Wrong Lyceum. • War Paint Nederlander. • Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie Irish





Metropolitan Museum “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” This year’s Costume Institute exhibition eschews chronology, instead presenting the radical Japanese fashion designer’s exquisite and brutal pieces as a solar system of ideas. Among the first garments you encounter is a voluminous dress of crinkled brown paper, whose sealed sleeves suggest deflating beach balls, from Kawakubo’s autumn/winter 2017-18 collection, “The Future of Silhouette.” The oversized, crumpled form is exemplary of Kawakubo’s haute-punk conceptual sensibility; the gown’s sculptural presence flaunts its impracticality, issuing a challenge to the accepted purposes of both clothing and bodies. The elusive designer became infamous in the early nineteen-eighties for such resolutely drab clothing as the gathered cocoon dresses of her “Round Rubber” collection. Shroudlike disguises figure into her work from subse-

quent decades, too, counterbalanced by absurdly tailored pieces, including cinched whirlpools of deconstructed menswear and gingham frocks deformed by asymmetrical humps. Kawakubo’s visionary designs are marvellously displayed in an airy white hive of compartments, with elevated ledges and roundish rooms to peer into. Although a substantial printed guide is made available at the entrance, wall text is kept to a blissful minimum. Given Kawakubo’s rejection of historical narrative and of fashion’s winking self-referentiality, there is only one rule for experiencing the joys of this exhibition: go. Through Sept. 4.

Museum of Modern Art “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” This tantalizing show celebrates the joint acquisition, by the museum and Columbia University, of the great architect’s archive, which contains more than half a million photographs, drawings, and pieces of correspondence. But even the tiny fraction on display here is enough to give a vivid idea

Gordon Parks’s 1966 picture of Muhammad Ali with bandaged hands is on view in “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection.” 8


Brooklyn Museum “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85” The several dozen artists whose work is featured in this superlative survey did not conform to one style, but they did share urgent concerns, often addressing issues of bias and exclusion in their art— and in their art-world organizing. The Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM), a crucial New York institution of the black avant-garde, was instrumental to the careers of a number of them, including Lorraine O’Grady, whose sardonic pageant gown made of countless white gloves—the artist wore it in guerrilla performances at gallery openings—is a wonder. There is much powerful photography on view, from Ming Smith’s spontaneous portraits of Harlemites in the seventies to Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems’s poignant pairings of image and text, from the eighties. But the ephemera—the fascinating documentation and spirited newsletters—provide the exhibition’s glue, presenting the women not as anomalous achievers but as part of a formidable movement. Through Sept. 17. Bronx Museum “Bronx Calling: The Fourth AIM Biennial” For nearly four decades, the museum’s program Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) has been training small cohorts of emerging artists in the professional practicalities—from negotiating with galleries to retirement planning—that M.F.A. programs leave out. But there’s nothing commercial about this exhibition of works by the latest crop of seventy-two participants, co-curated by Christine Licata, Aylet Ojeda Jequín, and Heather Reyes. The Bronx native Mikołaj Szoska’s short video documentary about Utica, New York, intercuts scenes of urban blight with footage shot during the Polka Day festivities of the Polish Community Club. The Ukrainianborn Luba Drozd projects her abstract, black-andwhite video onto long sheets of vellum and a vibrating piano string. “Back Home,” a minimal display of West African products purchased near the museum, by Shayok Mukhopadhyay, who grew up in India and studied at the International Center of Photography, in New York, includes eye-catching packages of African Queen skin-lightening cream and Hot Titus sardines. A delicate skull, by the recent Cranbrook graduate Jayoung Yoon, was made using nothing more than glue and strands of her own hair. Burning up the entrance hall is the Korean-born Bang Geul Han’s heart-wrenching



of Wright’s overwhelming aesthetic and of the rigorous image control and self-promotion that, in concert with his design genius, made him a household name. The show’s idiosyncratic organization includes rooms dedicated both to specific projects, like Wright’s Imperial Hotel, in Tokyo, completed in 1923, for which he designed table settings, side chairs, carpets, and bricks, and to more general themes, such as his use of circles. Jewels include a gorgeous drawing by Marion Mahony Griffin, the first woman to graduate from an American architecture school, of a house surrounded by hundreds of tiny leaves, and two gouaches that show how the Guggenheim Museum would have looked finished in orange or pink instead of white. But the show’s high point, with or without the pun, may be the section devoted to the mile-high tower Wright proposed, with much fanfare, in 1956. An eightfoot-tall drawing of his jaggedly vertical design includes shout-outs to his mentor Louis Sullivan, a note specifying that the building would include parking space for a hundred helicopters, and silhouettes of the comparatively puny Great Pyramid and Empire State Building, for scale. Through Oct. 1.


animation “Through the Gaps Between My Teeth,” in which letters lifted from the words of President Trump’s “Access Hollywood” boast shuffle and rearrange themselves into brief, anonymous accounts of sexual assault that Han mined from Twitter, via the hashtag #notokay. Through Oct. 22.

Museo del Barrio “NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón” The Cuban artist’s big, richly textured collographs— made by running collaged cardboard through a printing press—are populated by mysterious, silhouetted figures with piercing, almond-shaped eyes. They derive from the mythological world of the allmale, Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá. Ayón, who took her own life in 1999, when she was thirty-two, was particularly fascinated by the female figure Sikán, who, legend has it, was sentenced to death for betraying Abakuá secrets to her lover. In these austere works, she is a commanding protagonist, portrayed alone with animals, or in tense scenes that refer to both Renaissance painting and Abakuá myth. One room of the museum is filled with six lush iterations of the same scene, made in 1988, of an initiation banquet in which women replace the expected male apostles in the “Last Supper”inspired composition. This edifying show suggests that Ayón may have sought to reflect, through her stylized lexicon, the sexual politics and economic turmoil of her time—and that she may have identified with the character of Sikán in deeply personal, even tragic, ways. Through Nov. 5. New-York Historical Society “Eloise at the Museum” In the world according to Eloise, who is six and lives at the Plaza, “getting bored is not allowed.” The writer Kay Thompson’s indelible character, first introduced in 1955 and made irresistible by the illustrations of Hillary Knight, is the subject of a charming show at the New-York Historical Society. There are original art works, manuscripts, vintage dolls, and a hatbox containing a hotel emergency kit (jujubes, sunglasses, a “Do Not Disturb” sign). There are also re-creations of Eloise’s “bawthroom” and bedroom; pick up a phone in the latter and you’ll hear Bernadette Peters reading out loud. Eloise may now be over sixty years old, but she’s aged incredibly well. The millennial-pink-and-black exhibition design is Instagram-ready—and then there are Skipperdee and Weenie, Eloise’s turtle and pug, petfluencers avant la lettre. Children will, of course, be delighted, but remember the subtitle of Thompson’s first volume: “A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups.” Through Oct. 9.


Don Van Vliet Van Vliet, who died in 2010, at the age of sixty-nine, was best known for the music he made as Captain Beefheart, but he was also a gifted artist. The works on paper here were made after he retired from performing, in the nineteen-eighties. Totemic figures emerge from hyperactive landscapes of scratches and smears only to subside into chaotic night. In one drawing, a majestic elephant with humanoid ears reclines on a red-and-black background; in another, a motley-colored clown pats his beret; a third, in India ink, suggests Matisse’s iconic dancers embarking on a shamanic ceremony at midnight. One group of fourteen drawings from the late nineties is composed entirely of urgent, fractured scrawls in pen and colored pencil. Through Sept. 9. (Werner, 4 E. 77th St. 212-988-1623.) 10



Jo Spence The British photographer matched her socialistfeminist politics with images of startling vulnerability to confront her dehumanization as a cancer patient. (She survived breast cancer but died of leukemia, in 1992.) Following in the footsteps of Cindy Sherman’s feminine archetypes, Spence staged acerbic tableaux, including pictures of her nude body pre- and post-lumpectomy. The series “A Picture of Health,” from 1982, shows her topless—in a motorcycle helmet, or wearing aviator sunglasses, or facing the camera with the words “Property of Jo Spence” written on her left breast. Spence favored both distilled compositions, which evoke art-historical images of female sexuality and motherhood, and storyboardlike works, such as the striking grid “Photo Therapy: Dashing Away the Smoothing Iron,” made in 1986-88, which chronicles her abandonment of stereotypical housewife’s chores. As this concise exhibition reveals, the ther-

apeutic and didactic potentials of art, for Spence, were not at odds with formal sophistication. Through Sept. 3. (Shin, 322 Grand St. 212-375-1735.)

“On Illusions” A handful of recent canvases by two Japanese painters fill this vest-pocket gallery in the Essex Street Market. The colliding fluorescent patterns in Naomi Okubo’s figurative works complement the glossy monochromes by Kuniyasu Sakaizawa, whose layered surfaces have the hypnotic effect of velvety fog or roiling water. Okubo renders her swirls of wild prints—floral wallpaper, embroidered cushions, ikat rugs, and bright dresses—with quiet precision, and anchors them with mystique. In two of her paintings, a young woman is posed like Manet’s “Olympia,” but turned away from the viewer, so we see a dark bob instead of her face. The device serves as an optical reprieve from the controlled chaos of Okubo’s patterns, while echoing the contemplative mood of Sakaizawa’s paintings. Through Sept. 3. (Cuchifritos, 120 Essex St. 212-420-9202.)



Beach Rats Eliza Hittman’s second feature, like her 2013 début, “It Felt Like Love,” is set in southern Brooklyn, centered on an adolescent’s sexual conflicts, and directed with a vigorous and tremulous intimacy. This time, the landscape is broader, the action rowdier. The story concerns Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a brash and smart-mouthed Sheepshead Bay teen-ager dissipating the summer with drugs, handball, and vaping, mostly in the company of three cronies he won’t deign to call friends. He gets picked up at a Coney Island fireworks show by a girl named Simone (Madeline Weinstein), but he pursues the relationship with a callous halfheartedness. Frankie is secretly gay; he connects with men online and sneaks off to desolate roadside areas for furtive sexual encounters. But, when his pals detect hints of his secret life, he considers drastic and ugly action to keep it covered up. Hittman, working with the cinematographer Hélène Louvart, conjures a palpable sense of heat, both physical and emotional, pressing close to faces and bodies in brazen sunlight, humid shadows, and neon haze. Her vision of a homogeneous enclave’s crushing insularity is as richly textured as her tactile sense of the allure and the danger of youthful energy.—Richard Brody (In limited release.) Columbus The title of the visual artist and video-essayist Kogonada’s intellectually passionate first feature refers to the Indiana city that’s home to a surprising abundance of modern architectural masterworks. Those buildings fire the imagination of his protagonist, a twentyish woman named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who’s stuck in place. Spurning college to care for her mother (Michelle Forbes), who’s a recovering drug addict, Casey works at the local library. When Jin (John Cho), an architectural historian’s son, comes to town, he abets her outpouring of pent-up ideas and enthusiasms about architecture and tries

to help her change her life. Richardson infuses her hyperalert performance with a rare dialectical ardor; her avid gaze at the city’s landmarks is matched by Kogonada’s own images, which capture the virtual libido of aesthetic sensibility. Filming Casey and Jin on location in the presence of the buildings that inspire them, he revels in the power of contemplative companionship—of looking, talking, thinking together— and unfolds the wonder of an artistic coming of age. With Rory Culkin, as Casey’s ironic gradstudent colleague, and Parker Posey, as Jin’s longtime friend.—R.B. (In wide release.)

Dunkirk The new Christopher Nolan movie is set in 1940, during the mass evacuation of British and French troops from northern France to the relative safety of England. The saga, an essential chapter in the British wartime narrative, is not widely known elsewhere, and what Nolan delivers is neither a history lesson nor even much of a war film. A good deal of it strikes the senses, not to mention the nerves, as an exercise in high tension and near-abstraction, as men (there are almost no women to be seen) are perilously poised between land and water, water and air, darkness and light. Mark Rylance, dourly determined, plays the skipper of the Moonstone, one of the innumerable “Little Ships” that went to the aid of those who were trapped on the beaches. Overhead, Tom Hardy is in typically phlegmatic form as a Spitfire pilot who must protect the naval vessels from German bombers. The movie feels old-fashioned whenever it seeks to stir up British pride; as a fable of survival, though, with its quicksilver editing and an anxious score by Hans Zimmer, it amazes and exhausts in equal measure. With Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, and Harry Styles.—Anthony Lane (Reviewed in our issue of 7/31/17.) (In wide release.) Fox and His Friends At the start of this 1975 drama, Franz Biberkopf— Fox, to his friends—loses his job as a carnival-sideshow performer but wins half a million


Girls Trip This warmhearted, occasionally uproarious com­ edy doesn’t quite sustain the heights of its per­ formers’ inspirations. Ryan (Regina Hall), a best­selling author, is chosen to deliver the key­ note address at the Essence Festival, in New Orleans, and she invites her three longtime best friends to join her for a sentimental and hard­partying reunion. Sasha (Queen Latifah), a journalist who’s now on the celebrity beat, has money trouble; Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a nurse and divorced mother of two young chil­ dren, is lonely; and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), an outrageously brazen pleasure­seeker, seems oblivious of the consequences of her actions. Meanwhile, Ryan learns that Stewart (Mike Col­ ter), her husband and business partner, is hav­ ing an affair with a younger woman (Deborah Ayorinde). These women’s problems have sub­ stance even though their characters are thinly written, and the film’s comedic flourishes offer a refreshing frankness about sex from women’s perspectives. The view of middle­class African­ American women’s lives behind closed doors, de­ spite its antic exaggeration, has a lived­in spec­

ificity. Malcolm D. Lee’s direction doesn’t offer much style or vigor, but Haddish delivers a wild yet precise performance of verbal and gestural fury that puts her at the forefront of contempo­ rary comedy.—R.B. (In wide release.)

Good Time A headlong new movie from Josh and Benny Saf­ die. The latter also stars as Nick, a shy soul with learning difficulties, who is dragged into crime by his brother, Connie (Robert Pattinson). They rob a bank; Nick is arrested, and Connie spends the rest of the film trying to spring him from cus­ tody, or to raise enough money—by any means, fair or foul—to bail him out. Much of the story unrolls in the course of one night. Though Con­ nie’s adventures border on farce, as he hatches a plan to smuggle a patient out of the hospi­ tal and blunders around an amusement park, the mood remains sleepless and crazed, com­ pounded by a nagging neon glow and the throb of the soundtrack. For the Safdies, restlessness comes with the territory, often to scattershot ef­ fect; this, however, is their most coherent work to date, largely because of Pattinson, whose energy drives the tale along. Connie is a thief, a sponger, and sometimes a real jerk, but you can’t get him out of your head. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a weary friend who’s seen it all before.—A.L. (8/21/17) (In wide release.) Ingrid Goes West Aubrey Plaza’s fiercely committed performance nearly rescues this dubious contrivance from ab­ surdity. The drama, directed by Matt Spicer, is the latest entry in the picturesque­mental­illness genre. Plaza plays the title character, a young woman whose violent outbursts lead to a spell in an institution. When Ingrid gets out, instead of receiving therapy and taking medication, she moves to Los Angeles in order to stalk an Insta­ gram celebrity named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) and insinuate herself into Taylor’s private life and social­media feeds. Ingrid manipulates Dan (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), her new neighbor and quasi­ landlord, for help with her schemes; indifferent to the pain she causes, Ingrid is speeding toward

Teri Garr stars in “One from the Heart,” Francis Ford Coppola’s technically ambitious and lavishly stylized 1982 musical. It screens Sept. 2-3 at BAM Cinématek in a series featuring four of Garr’s films. 12


disaster and determined not to crash alone. Yet Spicer’s empathetic view of Ingrid’s tangle of mis­ ery is outweighed by his satirical critique of on­ line stardom, Hollywood hustling, and conspic­ uous consumption; he presents Ingrid’s maladies as the results of the social ills of the times. The ac­ tion devolves into wan op­ed commentary. With Billy Magnussen, as Taylor’s dissolute yet deeply loyal brother, and Wyatt Russell, as her trophy boyfriend.—R.B. (In limited release.)

The Killers The director Don Siegel’s Technicolor film noir, from 1964—very loosely based on Ernest Hem­ ingway’s darkly comic story of death and its dealers—displays the seamy side of life in sharp graphic lines. It’s centered on a pair of sardon­ ically brutal hit men (Lee Marvin and Clu Gu­ lager) who pursue their work with a sinister glee. After gunning down their target, a race­ car driver (John Cassavetes), they begin to sus­ pect that there’s big money at stake, and they set out to get it. Their quest takes them to Miami, New Orleans, and Los Angeles; the story of a million missing dollars is revealed in flashbacks that involve a femme fatale (Angie Dickinson) and her sugar daddy (Ronald Reagan, in his last movie role), a twisted love affair, and a heist gone awry. As in Hemingway’s story, the killers are a couple of cutups; Gulager and Marvin bring a weird and wicked sense of humor to the hit men’s dirty work. Siegel’s terse, seething, and stylish direction glows with the blank radiance of sheet metal in sunlight; the movie’s bright pri­ mary colors and glossy luxuries are imbued with menace, and its luminous delights convey a ter­ rifyingly cold world view.—R.B. (Film Forum, Sept. 4, and streaming.) Kiss Me Deadly Robert Aldrich’s flamboyant and hectic 1955 film noir opens with a pre­credit sequence that announces its blend of sexual voracity, sadism, found poetry, sharp­edged performances, and visual invention. The story is adapted from a pulp novel by Mickey Spillane, and its detec­ tive, the brutish Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker), has none of the suave command of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He crashes blindly through his case—a forbidden quest for a mys­ terious object—leaving a trail of collateral dam­ age, both human and cultural. Along the way, the film offers verse by Christina Rossetti, a re­ cording of Caruso, Schubert’s Unfinished Sym­ phony, souped­up cars and a man crushed under one, a woman on a meat hook, a whiff of narcot­ ics, a primordial answering machine, bloody street fights, and nuclear catastrophe. The ac­ tors’ idiosyncratic voices, wrapped around such chrome­plated phrases as “the great whatsit” and “va­va­voom,” are as hauntingly musical as Al­ drich’s images. In his vision of ambient terror, the apocalyptic nightmares of the Cold War ring in everyone’s heads, like an alarm that can’t be shut off.—R.B. (Metrograph, Sept. 2-3.) Lemon Janicza Bravo co­wrote her first feature with her husband, Brett Gelman, who stars as a sad­sack actor named Isaac who’s flailing and failing at work and in love. Ramona (Judy Greer), his girl­ friend of ten years, who is blind, leaves him. He teaches an acting class where he mostly berates his students—especially the women—but fawns over one named Alex (Michael Cera), whose suc­ cesses he envies and resents. Isaac’s career has been reduced to public­service ads about dis­


marks in the lottery. Soon thereafter, Fox also wins a new boyfriend: Eugen Thiess (Peter Cha­ tel), the heir to a small printing firm, whose com­ forts are threatened by the company’s impend­ ing bankruptcy. A gay man who’s half hustler, Fox—played by the film’s director, Rainer Wer­ ner Fassbinder—is a fool for love, and he’s soon parted from his money. Fox makes loans to keep the company going and pays for Eugen’s luxuries, but the Thiess family subjects Fox’s table man­ ners, speech, wardrobe, and education to cruel scrutiny. This melodramatic fable of emotional extremes is sharp and precise—nowhere more so than in Fassbinder’s attention to the price of do­ mestic finery and industrial necessities. Munich’s hothouse demimonde plays like a permanent floating theatre that reveals unspoken distinc­ tions of class and status. Here, good taste happens to bad people and masks the predatory wiles of business and love alike. In German.—R.B. (BAM Cinématek, Aug. 30-31, and streaming.)

MOVIES eases; at one studio shoot, he meets Cleo (Nia Long), a makeup artist, and they begin to date. Bravo is black and Gelman is white, and Bravo makes derisive comedy out of Isaac’s oblivious and offensive attitudes and remarks regarding race, and out of his stereotyped suburban Jewish family (headed by Fred Melamed and Rhea Perl­ man). Isaac veers between mistakes, disasters, and humiliations in rigid tableaux and graphic stylizations that fuse comedy and pathos, but Bravo’s compositional sense is strained and un­ revealing. The movie declares its intentions with a bland simplicity and reduces its characters’ substantial experiences to a series of empty ges­ tures.—R.B. (In limited release.)

Little Fugitive At its core, this pioneering independent film, from 1953, is just an urban heart­warmer, but it has a fresh, gritty surface and a Grade A horror­ comic hook: a seven­year­old boy (Richie An­ drusco), believing that he has fatally shot his older brother, goes on the lam. Although the ten­ sion peaks when the boy pulls the trigger, that moment epitomizes the movie’s claustrophobic mean­street queasiness and keeps the rest of it from seeming sappy. Morris Engel, the cinema­ tographer, who shares the writing and direct­ ing credits with Ruth Orkin (his wife) and Ray Ashley, used a handheld camera to exploit all the wonders of Coney Island; the result is a lively essay on ball­toss games, pop bottles, pony rides, and human midsections of all varieties, as seen from a four­footer’s perspective. Truffaut consid­ ered it an inspiration for the French New Wave— and no wonder. This valuable record of love and pain on the beach offers up unique vignettes, in­ cluding one that captures a pair of lovers staking out a spot on the sand, then hiding their heads under a towel as they snuggle and smooch.—Michael Sragow (Film Forum, Sept. 4, and streaming.) Logan Lucky The new Steven Soderbergh film stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as Jimmy and Clyde— the Logan boys, from West Virginia, who, to­ gether with their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), hatch a plan to rob a bank vault under Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Tatum savors the name as if he were sipping rye.) Also on the team are Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brainless brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson). Joe is an expert bank robber, though clearly not that expert, given that he is in jail; Craig delivers, in the truest sense, a breakout performance, springing manically free from the bondage of 007. Soderbergh like­ wise brushes off the glamour that he conjured for “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and its sequels, and rev­ els in the rough and compromised lives of his pro­ tagonists, as he did in “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and “Magic Mike” (2012). The movie, part of which takes place during a Nascar race, can’t al­ ways resist the temptation to patronize, but, as the story proceeds, it builds up both a head of steam and an atmosphere of reckless good will. With brief but striking contributions from Kath­ erine Waterston, as a medic, and Katie Holmes, as Jimmy’s ex.—A.L. (8/28/17) (In wide release.) Marjorie Prime Michael Almereyda has long been eager to probe the dramatic potential of new technologies; in his “Hamlet” (2000), the ghost of the king ap­ pears to the grieving prince via CCTV. In Al­ mereyda’s new film, the whole plot is founded on a digital innovation of the near­future. The dead, we learn, will be resurrected as computer­

programmed holograms known as Primes, which allow the bereaved to converse with—and take some comfort from—near­flawless 3­D facsim­ iles of their loved ones. In an elegant beach house, Marjorie (Lois Smith) enjoys the com­ pany of Walter (Jon Hamm), a Prime of her late husband at his peak, in handsome middle age. Their reborn relationship (if that is what it is) causes understandable disquiet to Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and Tess’s hus­ band, Jon (Tim Robbins), though it seems un­ likely that they, in turn, will reject the chance to summon forth those they have lost. The movie, adapted from a play by Jordan Harrison, stays close to the sea, and the action—mostly talking— is confined to a few quiet rooms. But the moods change as swiftly as the weather, and the per­ formers derive full value, and a surprising ten­ sion, from their uneasy dealings with the living dead.—A.L. (8/28/17) (In limited release.)

Nocturama Arriving in the wake of terrorist incidents in France, Bertrand Bonello’s new film risks—or maybe courts—controversy. A group of young men and women, hailing from varying classes and races, and linked only by their disaffection with society, carry out coördinated attacks across Paris on a single day. That evening, they take refuge in a department store, after hours, and have time to savor some of the finer fruits of capitalism: de­ signer clothes, televisions, food and wine. Mus­ tering outside, meanwhile, are the forces of the law. The approach throughout is hyper­controlled, fending off any hint of the reckless; both the ed­ iting and the cinematography keep careful pace with the tightly plotted crimes, and many of the performers patrol the scenes in an under­reactive daze. Bonello, like John Carpenter, provides his own electronic score, and, in the end, you are less likely to be outraged by the movie’s political prov­ ocation than numbed by its hypnotizing style. In French.—A.L. (8/21/17) (In limited release.) Patti Cake$ Geremy Jasper’s hardscrabble New Jersey fan­ tasy has a heart—but an artificial one. It’s the story of Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Mac­ donald), a twenty­three­year­old woman who lives with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), an alcoholic, and her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Patti—who’s overweight and has long endured the nickname Dumbo—works as a wait­ ress at a grim bar while dreaming of hip­hop stardom under the name Killa P. Although she can out­rap her fellow­locals in a street­corner contest, her musical partnership with Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist who per­ forms as Jheri, is going nowhere. But she even­ tually meets a taciturn loud­core anarchist who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a sort of musical genius, whom she lures into the group, sparking romance and success. There are hiccups along the way—debt, work, insult, injury, illness, death—and Patti’s force­ ful, confident pugnacity takes some blows. She has to accept her family identity while attempt­ ing to forge an artistic one—and trying to rec­ oncile with Barb, a former singer who put her own dreams aside. Jasper hits every note of senti­ mental manipulation in a tale that’s as fleetingly affecting as it is insubstantial and mechani­ cal.—R.B. (In wide release.) Planetarium The director Rebecca Zlotowski turns the real­ life story of the Paris­based producer Ber­

nard Natan, whose career was torpedoed in the nineteen­thirties by an anti­Semitism­ fuelled scandal, into an iridescent drama about the mystical lure of movies. Emmanuel Sal­ inger plays André Korben, a Jewish producer based on Natan, whose control of a Paris stu­ dio is threatened—and who wants to use his power and his money to film the unfilmable. He sees a stage performance by two Ameri­ can mediums, the sisters Laura and Kate Bar­ low, and decides, first, to make Laura (Natalie Portman) a star, and, then, to film Kate (Lily­ Rose Depp) summoning spirits. To that end, he invests in the invention of a camera that can capture metaphysical phenomena. Portman, acting in French and English, brings a mask­ like command to her role as an accidental ac­ tress for whom performing is just a business, and Salinger is calm yet forceful as a vision­ ary who, in the face of an anti­Semitic cam­ paign, risks his business for his personal pas­ sion. Zlotowski, recapturing the past with a glossy, abstracted sense of wonder, displays the cinema’s glorious myths and monstrous realities.—R.B. (In limited release.)

War for the Planet of the Apes If only Darwin were alive to see this film. Cae­ sar, incarnated by Andy Serkis, is living proof that the highest human virtues—valor, compas­ sion, a keen intelligence, and a gift for leader­ ship—are most credibly combined in a monkey. In this latest chapter of the simian saga, Caesar plans to lead his freedom­loving comrades to a promised land; first, however, there is a military lunatic (Woody Harrelson) to contend with, and murders to be avenged. What follows is often cruel, and hard to classify as entertainment; we see a labor camp in full spate, and—surely a cin­ ematic first—some form of ape crucifixion. Matt Reeves’s film takes itself extremely seriously, and, without a glimmer of irony, adds a touch of religious allegory to both the dialogue and the highfalutin images with which the story con­ cludes. Still, the technical achievement marches on, and there appears to be no challenge that cannot be met and overcome by the magi of the digital craft. (Do orangutans really cry?) The most affable character, new to the franchise, is a chimp who, after a long spell in a zoo, speaks English—voiced by Steve Zahn—rather bet­ ter than he gibbers or howls.—A.L. (7/24/17) (In wide release.) Whose Streets? A new documentary, directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, about the 2014 killing of Mi­ chael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of the police, and about the widespread anger that ensued. Indeed, the film is still fired up; if it makes no effort to take a balanced view, that is because the time for balance—to judge by the opinions expressed with such vehemence here— is long gone. Few moderate voices are heard, and the movie seems destined to become part of the activist movement that it portrays. In lieu of a narrator who might shepherd us calmly through the fractious events in Missouri, we are treated to a busy collage of interviews, archival footage, and tweets, plus a load of cell­phone­video clips, freshly caught from the flow of the streets. One of the most appealing—and most forthright— figures we encounter is Brittany Ferrell, who instructs her six­year­old daughter in the art of public protest. Judging from that, Ferguson is in no danger of being forgotten.—A.L. (8/7 & 14/17) (In wide release.) THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



Metropolitan Opera Summer HD Festival For the ninth year running, the company sets up three thousand seats on Lincoln Center Plaza for a week and a half of grand-opera movie nights. The schedule of screenings concludes with “Roberto Devereux,” “Tristan und Isolde” (wisely apportioned across two evenings), “Eugene Onegin,” “Nabucco,” and “La Traviata.” Aug. 30-Sept. 4 at 8. (No tickets required.)

sent contemporary vocal music. The first evening features a trio of startlingly different singers: the emotive avant-gardist Theo Bleckmann, known for his eccentric takes on show tunes and art songs; Jennifer Walshe, who performs in a kind of chatty sprechgesang; and the impressive young bass-baritone Davóne Tines, whose program of spirituals includes arrangements written by the up-and-coming composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin. Sept. 5 at 7:30. (Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn. Through Sept. 7.

Bargemusic Mark Peskanov, the director of the harborside chamber-music series, likes to use the slow spots in his schedule to make a big play for new music. This Labor Day weekend, he presents “A Celebration of Contemporary Women Composers by Women Performers,” a rotating program featuring première works by such composers as Laura Kaminsky, Dalit Warshaw, Marti Epstein, Paola Prestini, Augusta Read Thomas (“Toft Serenade”), Paula Matthusen, and Missy Mazzoli (“A Thousand Tongues”). The outstanding musicians include the pianists Ursula Oppens and Kathleen Supové, the soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, and the violinist Jennifer Choi. Aug. 30 and Sept. 1-2 at 8. (For tickets, program details, and a full schedule of concerts, see

“John Cage: 9/5/five/105” Celebrating John Cage on his hundred-and-fifth birthday, the composer Randy Gibson and the lighting designer Kryssy Wright assemble the visionary composer’s “Five” pieces—five works for varying quintets, written in 1988 and 1991—into a chance-determined eighty-minute performance. The featured interpreters include the clarinettist Carlos Cordeiro and the trombonist Will Lang, from the adventurous quartet loadbang; the string quartet the Rhythm Method; and the percussion ensemble Mangobot. Sept. 5 at 8. (Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.

Juilliard Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen New York doesn’t need much of an excuse to bring the brilliant Finnish composer-conductor to town, but his latest appearance will be of special note. He’ll lead an orchestra of some ninety souls— half from the Juilliard Orchestra, half from the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra—in a celebration of the centenary of Finland’s independence, which will feature works by Salonen himself, by his late friend Steven Stucky (the Sibelius-inspired “Radical Light”), and, of course, by Sibelius (the “Lemminkäinen Suite”). Sept. 5 at 7:30. (Alice Tully Hall. 212-721-6500.)

Skaneateles Festival Way off in the Finger Lakes region, at the edge of New Yorkers’ summer-vacation consciousness, classical music has thrived for decades every August and September at this relaxed but high-quality festival. ECCO—the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a sterling string band—is the core group for the season’s final trio of concerts, the first and third of which also feature a superb trumpet soloist, Brandon Ridenour. The repertoire, combining chamber and stringorchestra works, includes chestnuts by Gershwin, Saint-Saëns, Bach (the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2), Dvořák, Copland (“Appalachian Spring”), and John Adams (“Shaker Loops”). Aug. 31-Sept. 1 at 8 and Sept. 2 at 7:30. (Skaneateles, N.Y.

Resonant Bodies Festival Now in its fifth year, the three-day festival is unique in its single-minded mission to pre-


Music Mountain The ebullient Shanghai String Quartet has always been a favorite at this festival’s hall, a whitewashed shoebox design with acoustics that give bright and clear support to the mellow sounds of strings. The group dominates the weekend, with concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The first offers quartets by Mendelssohn and Brahms (in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1), along with a clutch of Chinese folk-song arrangements; the second features two quartets by Beethoven (including the “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 2 in E Minor) and the zesty Piano Quartet in G Minor by Brahms (with Qing Jiang at the keyboard). Sept. 2 at 6:30 and Sept. 3 at 3. (Falls Village, Conn. South Mountain Concerts This quietly distinguished series, founded in 1918, picks up the slack after the big summer festivals taper off. Only blue-chip groups are likely to appear: the first this year is the KalichsteinLaredo-Robinson Trio, which is marking its fortieth anniversary in the business. The program features canonical trios by Mendelssohn (No. 2 in C Minor) and Brahms (No. 1 in B Major), as well as a work by a distinguished longtime friend, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Sept. 3 at 3. (Pittsfield, Mass. 413-442-2106.) Maverick Concerts The penultimate Sunday concert of the season at the Maverick’s woodland music chapel belongs to the vibrant young Horszowski Trio. Its program offers monuments of the piano-trio catalogue by Schubert (the Notturno in E-Flat Major) and Mendelssohn (the Trio No. 1 in D Minor), along with a fascinating work by the American operatic composer Daron Hagen, “J’entends” (Piano Trio No. 2), inspired by a controversial painting by Degas, “Intérieur.” Sept. 3 at 4. (Woodstock, N.Y.

Brooklyn Raga Massive brings its energy and style upstate to Hudson Hall, performing Terry Riley’s Indian-influenced minimalist masterwork “In C.” 14




Brooklyn Raga Massive: “In C” The seminal minimalist composer Terry Riley was deeply influenced by the improvisatory structures and ecstatic repetition of Indian classical music when he developed his own revolutionary idiom. Now the players of Brooklyn Raga Massive turn the tables, performing Riley’s watershed 1964 work on sitars, sarods, bansuris, tablas, and the like. Sept. 1 at 7. (Hudson Hall, Hudson, N.Y.



Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.

A.Chal The Weeknd may have evoked Toronto’s frigid gloom when he sketched out the hedonist R. & B. of his “House of Balloons” mixtape, but the style struck a chord in muggy Los Angeles, where he spawned progeny who found the soundtrack toxic enough for spotty nights off La Brea. The Peruvianborn singer Alejandro Chal sputtered out a few kindred cuts in 2013, gathered together in a free EP called “Ballroom Riots,” and has reanimated with a pair of Billboard-fluent singles, “Gazi” and “Round Whippin,” which enjoyed support from Beats 1 Radio’s Zane Lowe. A.Chal plays the late show at Mercury Lounge. (217 E. Houston St. 212260-4700. Sept. 5.)

The celebrated Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman performs at Brooklyn Bowl on Sept. 1.

The Wedding Singer


Omar Souleyman electrifies Syrian traditions for curious ears.

“Wenu Wenu” starts with a splatter of synth hits that one might hear if a game-show contestant finally uttered the secret bonus word. A fuzzy keyboard mimics an oud melody, sprinting through notes with the abandon of a black-metal guitar solo, while drums and hand claps bang out a pulsing dancehall backbeat. “Where is she? Where is she? / The one whom I loved, where is she?” Omar Souleyman sings in Arabic, with an aching tone that sounds both longing and venerating. Souleyman has performed at wedding ceremonies throughout Syria for more than two decades, but his take on the traditional dabke sound has made him a star beyond the region, and has been pegged by world-music explorers as the crown sound of the Middle East. In 2013, the British electronic musician Four Tet, who has collaborated with Souleyman, declared “Wenu Wenu” “the dance album of the year.” Influences from the Middle East and South Asia have appeared regularly across Western pop history, from sitar-spiked sixties psychedelia, courtesy of Ravi Shankar, to the Arabic

samples pawed over by rap producers and dance d.j.s in the early aughts. Souleyman is similarly entrancing to American listeners, while remaining largely unaffected by their tastes. His songs are revelatory to fans of electronic, dub, and dance sounds, and notable for dizzying keyboard work by his former collaborator Rizan Sa’id. But Souleyman upends vocal traditions as well, the result of the intermingling cultures of his home town, Ras al-Ayn, a city in northern Syria that grazes the border of Turkey: the artist cites exposure to Turkish, Assyrian, and Kurdish singing styles as having shaped his own. World music, that imperfect catchall, rewards a forfeit of context: many Souleyman fans who will watch him at Brooklyn Bowl on Sept. 1 have never heard another dabke performer, and are exposed to Syrians largely through political coverage. But the war refugee and line-dance m.c. appears somehow immune to reductionist voyeurism. There is a selfless gall to Souleyman’s work, likely because of its utility in his homeland as music of leisure and of purpose, distributed via grainy wedding footage of happy families, in which he is both central and just out of sight. —Matthew Trammell

Counting Crows In the nineties, the Counting Crows were mainstays of the adult-alternative sound. Their dreadlocked front man, Adam Duritz, could do no wrong (if you overlooked his shameless vocal similarity to Van Morrison). He dated Courteney Cox, of “Friends” fame, and the band churned out plangent radio hits with ease. Duritz has had a tougher time of things in recent years—he has talked publicly about his battle with depression—but the odes to melancholic romance keep coming. The band co-headlines the Brief History of Everything Tour with Matchbox Twenty, the eighteen-times-platinum behemoths fronted by Rob Thomas, who described the tour to Rolling Stone as a “victory lap.” (Jones Beach Theatre, 895 Bay Pkwy., Wantagh, N.Y. Aug. 31.) Electric Zoo Carnival Electronic music comes to Randall’s Island for this three-day rave, now in its eighth year. Five stages host dozens of artists, d.j.s, and producers, though the headliners alone are enough to fill your itinerary. On Friday, DJ Snake and Galantis send crowds soaring with reliably mammoth melodies; Saturday stars Above & Beyond and Zedd, whose globalminded synth pop bolsters songs like “Stay,” with Alessia Cara. The festival closes Sunday with anticipated sets from the infamous Deadmau5 and Eric Prydz, who was recently nominated for two Electronic Music Awards—DJ of the Year and Live Act of the Year—to be presented at the upcoming inaugural ceremony. ( Sept. 1-3.) Guided by Voices When this no-frills Ohio outfit first emerged from the arty underground, with the album “Bee Thousand,” in 1994, its songs, most of which barely crossed the two-minute mark, sounded like they had been scraped together with whatever happened to be nearby—tinny microphones, battle-scarred guitars, a bargain-bin four-track recorder. The group’s name suggested unseen spirits, yet its lyrics were yearning and human: “I am a scientist, I seek to understand me / I am an incurable, and nothing else behaves like me,” the vocalist Robert Pollard crooned on “I Am a Scientist.” While many of the band’s original members have left, it continues to record in the same way, and at a similarly feverish pace. (House of Independents, 572 Cookman Ave. Asbury Park, N.J. 732-977-5284. Sept. 1.) Horse Meat Disco The d.j.s James Hillard, Jim Stanton, Filthy Luka, and Severino host one of the sweatiest shows on THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



Neon Indian On its début album, “Psychic Chasms,” from 2009, this Texas electronic band outlined the lofi, sample-driven twist on pop, rock, and psychedelia which would dominate music blogs and rooftop gatherings in the summers to come. The singer and composer Alan Palomo, born in Monterrey, Mexico, distilled the so-called chillwave sound down to potent concentrations: drumbeats soft and clipping, synths modulated into shivers, with vocals sneaking acid-dream motifs in through the fuzz. “Everything comes apart if you find the strand,” he sings, “all it takes is a hand.” Neon Indian released two more acclaimed records that extended the band’s grasp on downbeat dance music, including, most recently, “Vega Intl. Night School,” from 2015. Good Room hosts its latest gig, with a set from Love Tempo thumping alongside. (98 Meserole Ave., Brooklyn. 718-349-2373. Sept. 2.) On Da Reggae and Soca Tip This annual concert’s slight amendment to its name (originally On Da Reggae Tip) speaks to the steady rise of soca, the up-tempo carnival sound of Trinidad and Tobago meant to be heard in procession. The vocalist Bunji Garlin, who has long been the face of soca, enjoyed crossover success with the 2014 songs “Differentology” and “Truck on d Road,” which capitalized on pop’s courtship with Caribbean sounds. But Jamaican dancehall still reigns supreme this time of year in New York, and the show’s organizers have brought together a stacked bill that includes Sean Paul, Busy Signal, Kranium, and Kevin Lyttle, whose “Turn Me On” was the “One Dance” of 2003. (Ford Amphitheatre at Coney Island Boardwalk, 3052 W. 21st St., Brooklyn. 718954-9933. Sept. 1.)


George Cables Trio Never a star but always a guy you needed on your team, the pianist Cables provided sleek yet earthy playing for Freddie Hubbard, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, and other eminent jazz performers starting in the late nineteen-sixties, all the while producing substantial sessions of his own. If his ubiquity caused many to take Cables for granted, his present mastery is not to be overlooked. An ace rhythm team with the bassist Ed Howard and the drummer Victor Lewis will provide textbook support. (Jazz at Kitano, 66 Park Ave., at 38th St. 212885-7119. Sept. 1-2.) Cyrus Chestnut There’s a tactile feeling that emanates from Chestnut’s piano, a welcoming embrace that assures you that you’ve picked the right spot for the night. Since he arrived on the scene, in the late nineteen-eighties, Chestnut has gained renown as a trusted stylist who judiciously balances mainstream and modernist leanings, mixing high spirits and soulful, deeply satisfying improvisation touched by gospel music and the blues. Here he brings the same partners that make his new album, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” a treat: the bassist Buster

Peter Bernstein Quartet In 1994, the guitarist Bernstein roped together a pretty decent band for the recording of his album “Signs of Life.” These same former up-andcomers—Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Gregory Hutchinson—rejoined Bernstein for his latest album, “Signs Live!,” proving that potential can reap dividends. His supporting crew here may not be quite as illustrious, but the pianist Sullivan Fortner, the bassist Doug Weiss, and the drummer Leon Parker will surely do the fret-board marvel proud. (Smoke, 2751 Broadway, between 105th and 106th Sts. 212-864-6662. Sept. 1-3.) Alan Broadbent Trio Broadbent has played the role of the best man for years now, both as the pianist for Quartet West— the celebrated ensemble led by the late, great bassist Charlie Haden—and as an A-list studio arranger and conductor, but he deserves considerable attention as a probing stylist who deftly combines the rhapsodic and the propulsive. He’s joined by the bassist Harvie S and the open-eared drummer Billy Mintz. (Jazz at Kitano, 66 Park Ave., at 38th St. 212885-7119. Aug. 30.)

Great North River Tugboat Race At this annual Hudson River tugboat race— now in its twenty-fifth year—viewers can get an up-close view of the action from the Circle Line Spectator Boat, which cruises alongside the flotilla as competitors sail for glory between Pier 83 and Pier 84. Afterward, families can participate in various boardwalk contests, including line-tossing and spinach-eating. Last year’s race was thwarted by inclement weather, rescheduled, and nearly rained out again, but



dard, 116 E. 27th St. 212-576-2232. Aug. 31-Sept. 2.)

Trevor Dunn Quiet as it’s kept, except among the freethinking musicians who depend on his imaginative and daring playing, the bassist Dunn has been an M.V.P. for both new-jazz and experimental-rock outfits for some four decades now, collaborating with everyone from John Zorn to the Melvins. His residency finds him interacting with, among others, the guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, and concludes with a recap of Ornette Coleman’s 1962 tour de force, “Ornette on Tenor.” (The Stone, Avenue C at 2nd St. Aug. 29-Sept. 3.)

Roy Hargrove The bebop bug that got the teen-age trumpeter Hargrove, back in Texas in the nineteen-eighties, left its stinger in. This vigorous improviser has since investigated other byways, including fruitful forays into Cuban music and funk, but he always returns to draw from his initial inspiration. He leads a steaming quintet that offers plenty of room for his charging and lyrical brass ventures. (Blue Note, 131 W. 3rd St. 212-475-8592. Aug. 29-Sept. 3.)


NYC Unicycle Festival Long associated with circus life and clowning, the unicycle is a quirky but beloved pastime for many, and even a serious sport for a select few. This four-day-long gathering is a free, allages, all-levels affair hosted by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, an internationally known performance troupe. It begins on Aug. 31, with a group pedal from Battery Park to Central Park. The following day, there’s a thirteen-mile bridge-crossing ride from City Hall to the far reaches of Brooklyn, and a unicycle-themed stage show at Coney Island. On Sept. 2-3, on Governors Island, unicycle basketball, unicycle hockey, and unicycle sumo are on tap, as well as a “Hell on Wheel” obstacle course and learnto-ride workshops for those just beginning their one-wheeled journeys. ( Aug. 31-Sept. 3.)


Williams and the drummer Lenny White. (Jazz Stan-

tugs braved strong currents to take part in a bit of maritime history. The robin’s-egg-blue tugboat Emily Ann defends its title, having cleared the piers in three minutes and forty-five seconds. (Pier 84, Hudson River Park at W. 44th St. Sept. 3 at 10 A.M.)


Symphony Space Up there with Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and Jim Henson is the inimitable Stan Lee, whose contributions to the American animation tradition still dominate screens big and small, more than fifty years after Spider-Man’s début. The comedian and actor Chris Hardwick hosts a screening and discussion of “Extraordinary,” a special tribute to the creator of countless Marvel comic-book characters, filmed in Los Angeles on Aug. 22. A “This Is Your Life”-esque look back at Lee’s past, complete with testimonies from friends and loved ones, drives the tribute, which traces his early days in Brooklyn and his professional milestones. The film includes guest cameos from Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Tom Bergeron, Michael Rooker, and Todd McFarlane; fanatics can pine over personal photographs and home videos unseen by the public before now. (2537 Broadway. 212864-1414. Aug. 31 at 8.)


London’s Rinse.FM, serving classic disco with sides of Italo, house, and anything else they can squeeze in, each Sunday. The crew accurately regards disco as the root of all club music—the late Chicago pioneer Frankie Knuckles famously called house music “disco’s revenge”—and traces its lineage from Herbie Hancock and Cheryl Lynn to the simmering sounds of today, on its radio programs and at notorious parties. (Cielo, 18 Little West 12th St. 646-543-8556. Sept. 3.)





219 W. 116th St. (646-964-4252) In the nineteen-nineties, the late, great writer Denis Johnson once followed a group of Somalis across the border from Ethiopia and into the heart of their turbulent country. One of the images that endures from the piece he wrote afterward is of Somali food—“chunks of goat and spaghetti”—and of his narrator being taught “how to eat pasta the Somali way, without utensils, taking a shock of it in his right hand, turning it this way and that and gathering the long strands up into his palm, and then shoving it into his face.” At Safari, which claims to be New York’s only Somali restaurant, utensils are provided, and the goat and the pasta, which tastes like carbonara without the bacon, are so good that it’s hard to resist wolfing them down. Any dinner here should begin with sambusas, fried pastry triangles filled with beef, chicken, or vegetables that tingle with spices and are served with a kryptonite-green sauce called bizbaz. Extra bizbaz—which is mildly spicy, tastes of lime, coriander, and chili, and is utterly delicious—is a must. A good, but filling, sharing option among the starters is sabaayad, a piece of flatbread piled high with freshly roasted vegetables tossed in cilantro aioli. To drink, order a fiimto, which balances

sugary sweetness with acrid hibiscus. Shakib Farah’s cooking really shines in the main courses: goat, which lies atop buttery basmati rice (you can sub in pasta), is soft and dissolves with every bite in hilib ari, described on the menu as the “most popular Somali dish.” Chicken Fantastic is a creamy chicken stew that tastes like the best school lunch imaginable. But the real standout is busketti, beef simmered in a rich spiced sauce and served with that silky smooth spaghetti and rice. Save space, too, for malab iyo malawax, sweet crepes soaked in honey and dusted with cinnamon, and a mug of steaming qaxwo, pungent black coffee spiked with ginger. The owner, Maymuuna Birjeeb, has decorated the restaurant sparsely but tastefully. Wooden wall carvings recall Somalia’s discarded national alphabet, and Farah can be watched at work through a small window. The other night, a Somali-American from out of town said, “My family is from Somaliland originally”—the breakaway republic in the north—“but I hate when people call it that. We’re the same people!” As she spoke, she responded to a Snapchat of a gazelle her sister had sent from Hargeisa, the republic’s capital. Then she looked around approvingly, dipped a sambusa into a puddle of bizbaz, and observed, “We don’t have anything like this in D.C.” (Entrées $15-$18.) —Nicolas Niarchos


Kobrick Coffee Co. 24 Ninth Ave. (212-255-5588) In “A Moveable Feast,” the consummate day drinker Ernest Hemingway narrates his order in a Paris café: a café au lait, two servings of Martinique rum, and a half carafe of dry white wine. The great buzzed and wired bard of the Jazz Age would have liked Kobrick Coffee, where the baristas are cross-trained as mixologists and the creative synergy between the twin disciplines of craft coffee and craft cocktails rises to the level of art. From early morning until late afternoon, the place churns to the rhythms of aproned barmen grinding beans for espresso and tapping pitchers of steamed milk to break up the bubbles. By 8 p.m., the lights are dimmed, candles and dainty bud vases are set out, and a menu board rolls back to reveal a handsome liquor cabinet. Sitting permanently atop the counter is a tall and intricate Japanese cold-brew apparatus, in which the makings of a Negroni drip slowly through freshly ground coffee, for the Three Hour Kyoto Negroni. The house take on the Old-Fashioned involves Four Roses bourbon that’s been plunged through an AeroPress, and the delectable Mexican Jumping Bean unites tequila with ristretto. The caffeinated permutations of familiar ingredients, combined with a playlist that swings restlessly from Ella Fitzgerald to Norwegian E.D.M., creates an atmosphere that is at once nostalgic and ultramodern, a reflection of the city itself. Enter past midnight and it’s as though you stepped into an Edward Hopper painting. A Bumble date would not be out of place, but neither would a solitary writing session over a caffè corretto, two fingers of Jamaican rum, and a Loca Mocha—a bottle of house-made chocolate milk spiked with Jameson.—David Kortava THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017




he prerequisites for a senior adviser T to the President, like those for basketball coaches, boxing trainers, and stage directors, include a talent for knowing what to do with talent. Karl Rove looked at the unvarnished folksiness and the common touch of a patrician Texas baseball-team owner (and former First Son) and saw a future Commander-in-Chief. David Axelrod recognized in a lanky biracial state senator from Illinois a man who could be a history-making candidate for national office. Steve Bannon, the erstwhile senior adviser to Donald Trump, cannot claim any such narrative of discovery; he joined the campaign, as its “C.E.O.,” after Trump had already secured the Republican nomination. But Bannon perceived the billionaire reality-show host’s talents and steered him through the final phases of a general election that few people thought he could win. It didn’t matter that none of Trump’s talents were beneficial to the office of the Presidency or, really, to any public office in a democratic society. This particular partnership has come to an early end. Bannon clashed with the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, and with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; made grandiose pronouncements about his goal of achieving the “deconstruction of the administrative state”; and came under suspicion from various White House factions as a leaker. In an Administration where senior staffers are treated like seasonal

workers, Bannon’s prospects for longterm employment did not seem bright. Then, two weeks ago, came the terrible events in Charlottesville, and, with them, renewed concerns about Bannon’s presence (“We’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” Trump said, at a press conference), which coincided with the publication of an unbridled interview that Bannon gave to Robert Kuttner, of The American Prospect. In the interview, Bannon contradicted Trump’s hawkish rhetoric on North Korea (“There’s no military solution, forget it”) and described himself both as a force that inspired incontinence among his White House foes and as an embattled figure constantly fighting the “globalists”—those whom he has called “the West Wing Democrats.” He also dismissed as “clowns” the right-wing contingents that descended on Charlottesville, and made

a broader indictment of “ethno-nationalism,” the rationale for those groups’ existence. This was an odd display of public hand-washing, given that Breitbart News, which Bannon ran before he joined the campaign and to which he has now returned, has been so closely tied to the development of the euphemistically termed “alt-right” and its various belligerents. It also made it harder to see Bannon’s dismissal as a rebuke to such groups: the aide who called them clowns was going, but the President who said that their ranks included many fine people stayed. Whatever the reason, a few days later it was reported that Bannon and the new chief of staff, John Kelly, had agreed that it was finally time for him to go. With Bannon’s departure, those who saw his truculent blend of nationalism and racial grievance—Bannonism, if you wish— as the ballast in Trump’s otherwise foundering ship have been left to ponder who will now lead whom and where it will all end. In the Prospect interview, it appeared that Bannon’s overarching worry was that China would supplant the United States as the leader of the global economy in the next decade. He presented himself as simply fighting for protectionism, though he prefers the term “economic nationalism.”No one who watched the Hitlerian cosplay in Charlottesville believes, however, that the most embittered portions of the electorate that Bannon and Trump tapped into during the 2016 campaign were driven solely by economic anxiety. Charlottesville was the logical culmination of events set in THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


motion two years ago, when Trump’s announcement of his candidacy included a declaration that the country was inundated with Mexican rapists. (American populism since the early twentieth century, the era of the Georgia statesman Tom Watson, has had a habit of wasting vast amounts of energy in pursuit of paranoid conspiracy theories and racial resentments.) In the interview, Bannon notably recast his rivalries with Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, and Steve Mnuchin as mere disagreements over the virtues of globalism. In fact, on the day that Bannon’s departure was announced, a Breitbart senior editor tweeted “#war,” an apparent reference to the site’s plans to take on the “globalists.” Bannon told The Weekly Standard, “Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the oppo-

sition.” Breitbart celebrated by selling fidget spinners featuring Bannon’s face and the hashtag #war. This is mostly theatre. Bannon’s return has been accompanied by claims that Breitbart will increase its staff and its coverage, but the site faces significant challenges. Following the defeat of the far right in the Austrian, Dutch, and French elections, a planned expansion to France and Germany has not happened. The cyclonic winds of global populism that Breitbart had hoped to ride have, at least for the moment, calmed. And it remains to be seen whether Bannon can wield from the outside anywhere near the influence he commanded when his desk was a few feet from the Oval Office. The Administration’s next fight is likely to be over tax reform, and Trump presumably would rather not have Bannon, who has said that he favors raising taxes on the rich, leading

an attack that could, in effect, split the base. Last Tuesday, Breitbart blasted the speech that Trump delivered at Fort Myer on the war in Afghanistan, which it said made him sound like a “classic neocon,” and had enraged his America First followers. Yet, the same day, Trump staged a rally in Phoenix, hitting the old, familiar notes: he scorned the mainstream media as dishonest and traitorous; insisted that a border wall is necessary for national security, and threatened to shut down the government if he didn’t get one; and railed against establishment figures in the Republican Party, including the two senators from Arizona. These are disgruntlements that Bannon had helped whip up during the campaign, but, listening as the crowd in the arena roared, one would scarcely have noticed that he was gone. —Jelani Cobb


sembled artillery damage. Video exists of Schrager lying down, uneasily, in a full-scale mockup of a hotel room, apparently wondering if he’s the butt of a practical joke. “It looked like a mountain, and the windows were all jagged,” Schrager said. “Jacques thought it was a masterpiece. Rem thought it was a masterpiece. But I just didn’t feel it.” In 2001, he rejected the design, sought one from Frank Gehry, and then lost control of the site. A few years later, he hired Herzog & de Meuron to design the apartment building where he now lives. More recently, he watched from his hundred-and-thirty-foot-long deck as the Public, a hotel designed for him by the same firm, rose on Chrystie Street. Now the hotel was almost ready to open. Pointing it out, Schrager said, “We really obsessed about the concrete.” The next morning, Schrager went to the hotel to meet Herzog and de Meuron, who were visiting it for the first time in several months. “Not a bad building, huh?” Herzog said to Schrager, at the door. There were hugs; Herzog introduced his wife and his teen-age son. Schrager, bouncing with pride, then tore at the brown paper that was hiding the square opening of a giant metal tube, in which a pair of escalators ascended to the next floor, in dim, golden light. “It’s

like the sun cream in the nineteen-sixties,” Herzog said, riding up. “Coppertone.” (De Meuron was largely silent.) The architects had designed the escalator tube, but not other aspects of the building’s interior, which included a billiard table with golden balls. Herzog, looking around on the second floor, said, affectionately, “Listen, Ian, you improve over time, a lot. I remember the first things you’ve done with this French designer . . .” Herzog was referring, with feigned amnesia, to Philippe Starck, who brought a hectic playfulness to Schrager’s earlier hotels. “What was his name?” They passed through a bar, and then a lounge. “We were doing a lot of oneline jokes,” Schrager said. The ambition now is to be “so precise, so refined.” “And the rooms are tiny?” Herzog asked. “They are five thousand square metres!” Schrager said, trying to enjoy being teased. They inspected a bedroom on the fourth floor. “It’s very Swiss!” Herzog said happily. “A little on the Protestant side. And a contrast between something ornamental and something simple.” “Look at the lighting, Jacques,” Schrager said. He was pushing at a panel by the bed, to no effect. Herzog’s son stepped in to help, and the lights dimmed. “Sexy,” Schrager said.

an Schrager, the hotelier and former Ihouse co-owner of Studio 54, lives in a pentapartment on Bond Street, in NoHo. His abundant views include, to the north, a blue-green glass tower on Astor Place that nobody likes. It sits on a boxy Chase bank. “I think people come downtown to get away from buildings like that,” Schrager said, on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, sitting at his kitchen table. “A gateway to downtown— that’s what it should have been.” He could have built the gateway. Seventeen years ago, there was a parking lot on Astor Place, and Schrager tried to build a hotel on it; before that, he’d opened hotels only in renovated buildings. For the design, Schrager persuaded Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, to collaborate with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron; their firm, based in Basel, had just designed the Tate Modern, in London. They would soon be working on an Olympic stadium in Beijing. The architects designed a rough-surfaced, tapering tower whose windows re20


The lights brightened. “Work,” he said. In a larger corner room, Herzog sat on a sofa. “Is that the sexy lighting now?” Schrager touched the controls. “This is the sexy lighting.” “I can feel it,” Herzog said. When they returned to the public space, Schrager ordered coffee and then, on his phone, shouted at someone about the elevator-override system. “Who the fuck did that? Why?” After hanging up, he said, “It’s war! ” “Be happy,” Herzog said. “Never,” Schrager said. They talked about Donald Trump, whom Schrager knows well. “He’s a very capable guy with a nice family, and I’m rooting for him to succeed,” he said. Herzog demurred, politely, at some length. They talked about the lost building on Astor Place. “Was it the design?” Herzog asked. “Or was it just not the time?” “I was concerned—the windows— that it might be too disconcerting, too futuristic,” Schrager replied. “Maybe I was wrong.” “You were wrong, you were wrong.” There was a pause. “I don’t accept that from everybody, you know,” Schrager said. In January, Schrager received a pardon for his 1980 conviction for tax evasion. “I heard that,” Herzog said. “That was Obama, not your friend Donald.” “It brings an emotional closure to the whole thing,” Schrager said. “Tremendous embarrassment for my kids, for me.” “Now we can more openly admit to working with Ian,” Herzog said. —Ian Parker


n a recent afternoon in Astoria, O Queens, the artist Molly Crabapple was adding color to her paunchy, man-child drawing of Donald Trump, part of a large mural titled “The Bore of Babylon.” Holding a sceptre topped with a red “Make America Great Again” hat (on which Crabapple has scrawled “WHY” in white paint), the scowling President rides a Hydra-like monster with fifteen

heads—one for each member of his Cabinet. The creature, rendered in scratchy lines and splotches of black ink, seems a terrifying amalgam of Hieronymus Bosch, Honoré Daumier, and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Crabapple calls it Trumpbeast. It roams among more than a hundred and fifty works in the Welling Court Mural Project. In 2009, a resident named Jonathan Ellis sought to beautify Welling Court, a neighborhood along the East River; he persuaded building owners to donate their walls and reached out to the grassroots organization Ad Hoc Art, which now runs the project. Crabapple, whose work is in the permanent collections at MOMA and the Rubin Museum, was offered a space earlier this year, and gravitated toward the forty-fifth President as her subject. She has been drawing Trump since 2014, when, on assignment for Vice, she confronted him at a press conference in Dubai and asked him about allegations of exploitative labor practices on Trump-branded properties. She covered him again, for the Guardian, during his 2016 Presidential campaign. Crabapple’s renderings of Trump are darkly surreal. “I’ve always wondered, where does the orange stop?” she asked. “Is it full body? Do we want to know if it’s full body?” But she considers the system that put him into political power— and that continues to sustain him—to be just as pernicious as Trump himself. “This is not just about one man. That’s why I needed to draw the entire structure.” A thirty-three-year-old Queens native, Crabapple has long, jet-black hair and wide, mascaraed eyes, and she wore paint-splattered jeans. Her artistic inspirations are varied: Rivera and Picasso (“I fucking love all those macho dude modernists”), Mughal miniatures, ToulouseLautrec. For Trump’s Cabinet, she turned to Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut illustrations of the Book of Revelation, which feature the Whore of Babylon astride a many-headed monster. Taking out acrylic paints and brushes, Crabapple examined her creature. It has four mismatched legs, a tangle of writhing necks, and heads craning in every direction. Out front are a spooked Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, whom Crabapple compared to the Elf on the Shelf, and James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, who seems glum,

even uninterested, as he gazes into the distance. Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy, is giving Trump an accusatory look. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, seems anxious. And Betsy DeVos, in Education? “I drew her with these big, startled eyes,” Crabapple said. “Bearing an expression not befitting anyone

Molly Crabapple in the position she’s found herself in.” Crabapple pointed out the delicate flesh beneath the chin of Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce. “One of the things I was really having fun with was what I call jowl-tentacle-integration problems,” she said. “I wish there were a wild Kushner and Stephen Miller, but one’s hand gets tired.” The only non-Cabinet member included is Steve Bannon, who, here, is depicted as an octopuslike being hitching a ride on Trump’s back. Crabapple does not plan to change the mural to reflect his departure from the White House, but she’s open to certain forms of graffiti. “Maybe somebody will come and put a big red X over him—I’d be down with that,” she said. Aside from some pink splotches in Bannon’s cheeks, Trump is the only figure to appear in color. Using a plastic dish for a palette, Crabapple touched him up, applying mustard-yellow paint to an aggressively aerodynamic flap of hair. “Looking good!” Willy Vega, a neighbor who was walking by, exclaimed. “I’m going to tell my son, ‘I saw Donald Trump today.’ ” A man on the far side of the street called out, “Working on his orange glow!” Alice Howard, an art student from Cornwall, England, in town on holiday, stopped in front of the mural. “It’s like a THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


very dysfunctional family tree,” she said, and pointed to some crosshatched lines near Mnuchin’s face. “To make those kinds of marks, you’d have to move quickly, which I think is appropriate, because the whole thing happened quite fast with Trump. It’s kind of like a children’s book gone horribly wrong.” Crabapple added pink to Trump’s back folds, and stood back to assess her work. “I feel like I’ve stared at his orange mug, this void, for long enough,” she said, finally. She tossed the plastic dish into a nearby garbage can. “There’s nothing more to be said.” —Charles Shafaieh


driane Ohanesian first lived in AfA rica in 2010, shortly after graduating from Colorado College and completing a program at the International Center of Photography, in Manhattan. She worried that she might have to earn money by teaching figure skating, as she had done on and off since high school. But the manager of an ice rink in Nairobi never called her back, and she returned to her original career choice: photojournalist, covering conflicts in the most conflict-prone parts of the world. “Generally, I’m not afraid of things,” she said recently, over a cappuccino at a coffee bar on East Ninth. (She was vis-

iting family in the city.) She has long brown hair, which she had tied back with a scarf, and she was wearing large gold hoop earrings. A few weeks before, she’d been at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She and two Dutch journalists were researching the complex relationships among reserve rangers, soldiers, militants, game poachers, illegal gold miners, and residents of nearby villages, for a reporting project funded by the Dutch government. On their second day at the reserve, they hiked ten miles through dense jungle with a group of rangers, and camped at a gold mine that the rangers had recently shut down. Ohanesian turned her saucer upside down. “The ranger outpost was on top of a low hill, like this, and the gold mine was all around it,” she said, running her finger along the sides. “The miners had cut down most of the trees surrounding the hill, and they had dug lots of what looked like big gopher holes.” An older photographer once told Ohanesian that when she is working she must never take off her boots or remove her camera from around her neck. The day after arriving at the ranger camp, she did both. “Normally, I have equipment strapped all over me, and I look like a Ninja Turtle,” she said. “But I was cooking beans, and my camera kept swinging toward the fire, so I hung it on a post and dumped everything else in a big pile. And I was wearing flip-flops.” As the beans simmered, a band of armed men, apparently intent on recapturing the gold mine, ran out from the perimeter of the camp, and opened fire.

“When the shooting started, everyone just booked it, basically,” she said. “I chose to run this way.” She touched one side of the saucer. “There were three shooters I could see, and the rangers were firing back, and I made the decision to jump into a hole just beyond the edge of the camp. I didn’t realize how deep it was until I was in it—about twice my height—and then I was, like, Oh, that was a bad call.” The shooting continued until after dark. “Later, it got quiet, but then there would be a noise in the jungle and it would start again.” She lay curled up on her left side, her body pressed against the uphill wall of the hole, and she was afraid that if she moved she would give herself away. “I had to pee really badly, so I did.” In the morning, she heard some of the camp’s attackers talking, reloading their weapons, and eating cookies. She smelled a joint. “They were so close that when one of them took a bath the bathwater splashed into my hole.” By mid-afternoon, the camp was quiet again. Ohanesian had been lying in the same position for nearly twenty hours, and she decided to climb out and run away. “It was a bit ‘Survivor’-esque,” she said. “There were little paths in the jungle, but it’s rainy season now, so it’s super-muddy, and I was barefoot. I didn’t know where to go. I kind of just kept taking rights.” Near dusk, she heard voices, and stepped into a clearing with her hands raised. She recognized a Congolese man she had interviewed days earlier and knew that she was safe. That moment turned out to be the beginning of a second ordeal, which included seeing the feet of the five men killed in the attack—four rangers and one porter—sticking out from under a tarp, speaking to her parents by satellite telephone, dealing with wildly inaccurate news reports about what had happened, attending the burial of three of the rangers, and staying in a friend’s apartment in Nairobi while she recovered from malaria. Now she was back in the U.S.— though not for long. In two days she would be flying to Uganda, to photograph refugee camps along the border with South Sudan. “I don’t know how it will go for me yet, being back in the bush,” she said. “I’ll find out.” —David Owen



he factory that makes the paper T for U.S. currency smells like a clean barn just supplied with fresh hay. Built in the eighteen-seventies, in Dalton, Massachusetts, it runs today, as it did then, on the power of the adjacent Housatonic River. The scent emanates from the centerpiece of the mill, a giant, elevated iron sphere larger than a house. Tons of raw cotton and linen are poured in at the top, along with water, and the sphere is heated and spun like a washing machine to break up the fibres, which are run through the paper-making machinery at another, slightly younger plant down the road. It’s in that plant that this nineteenthcentury product is outfitted with the latest technology. The hundred-dollar bill, for example, is embedded with a micro-optic security ribbon—a blue line, next to Benjamin Franklin’s face, patterned with alternating images of the Liberty Bell and the number “100” which, when the bill is tilted, move up and down, left and right. The effect comes from more than a million microscopic lenses, each sitting atop a precisely printed image thinner than a human hair. Crane Currency, the company that has produced the paper for our currency for almost a hundred and forty years, now makes bills for dozens of other countries, and has created even smaller lenses with even more remarkable effects. One bill, when slanted, appears to have a large drop of water slowly moving down its face. Tod Niedeck, the head of marketing for Crane, says that he was inspired by the “Harry Potter” films, in which enchanted photographs come to life, and believes that in the near future Crane will be able to create bills with more complex animation: George Washington walking to a chair and sitting down, Franklin winking and waving. The official reason for all this modern technology is that it makes the currency hard to counterfeit, but that explanation isn’t quite sufficient. In reality, there has never been much counterfeiting in the U.S. Last year was typ

ical: about sixty-four million dollars’ worth of counterfeit currency was seized by the Secret Service, nearly half of which came from one operation in Peru. There is more than a trillion dollars’ worth of paper currency in circulation, which means that, in any given year, counterfeit bills represent five one-thousandths of one per cent of the total. Larry Felix, the former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told me that anti-counterfeit measures “don’t make much sense from a direct financial perspective,” since the cost of preventing counterfeiting is much greater than the infinitesimal loss caused by fake bills. But these measures have a broader, psychological purpose. “Banknotes depend

on confidence,” Felix told me. (Our paper bills are called banknotes because they are, technically, promissory notes—formal I.O.U.s—issued by the Federal Reserve.) “You accept a banknote because you figure the person you will hand it to will also accept it.” This is the essential circular mystery of money: its value comes from each of us believing that everybody else will continue to believe in its value. The physical bill reinforces this bit of theatre, with the feel of the cotton-andlinen paper reminding us that dollars are long-trusted, and the ever-upgraded magical effects reassuring us that they will hold value far into the future. This basic faith in currency has collapsed in other countries, most famously in Weimar Germany and, more recently, in Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Brazil.

(The Hungarian pengö suffered the worst known currency collapse to date, going from an exchange rate of thirtythree to the U.S. dollar in 1944 to four hundred and sixty septillion—a trillion times a trillion—to the dollar two years later.) The dollar, however, has been remarkably resilient. A decade ago, there was serious discussion of the euro or the Chinese renminbi becoming the central global currency. Then there was a great recession caused, in large part, by the failures of the American financial system. This coincided with advances in digital-payment systems, such as bitcoin and Apple Pay, and the proliferation of cell-phone payments in the developing world. Yet the dollar emerged dominant, showing that a currency doesn’t have to be great to be trusted—it just has to be the least bad. (Wall Street traders refer to the dollar as “the cleanest dirty shirt.”) Today, more than half of U.S. banknotes, including the vast majority of hundreddollar bills, are held outside the country, acting as a store of value more dependable than local currencies and as an extension of American influence. This year, many U.S. institutions have come under attack by a President who doesn’t seem to understand their nature or their importance. So far, our currency has been spared, its value protected by the Federal Reserve Board, which has remained outside the general madness. In the coming year, though, President Trump could replace Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer, the highly respected chair and vice-chair of the Fed, with new appointees. It’s not hard to imagine Trump installing unqualified toadies, people who might inflate or deflate the dollar to achieve political goals. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and, reportedly, the top candidate for the chair, represents so much that is odious about the Administration: the former president of Goldman Sachs, he blatantly favors the interests of banks and of the wealthy. Cohn does have one crucial qualification, however. He recognizes that reckless policies could undermine confidence in the dollar, creating wreckage that would far outlast this Administration. —Adam Davidson THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



BACK TO THE GARDEN A reality show aspired to remake society altogether. What could go wrong? BY SAM KNIGHT

nation’s reality shows do not arise A from nowhere. In the late nineteen-nineties, one of the most popular programs on Russian television was “Intercept,” in which police officers chased and beat contestants who were trying to steal cars. The Greeks, post-crash, are obsessed with “Survivor.” The Norwegians tune in for real-time knitting and log fires, while, in Japan, contestants on

up next to A.T.M.s, read. “No slavery. No cyber-bullying. No adults on microscooters,” read another, on the London Underground. A waterfall tumbled over a cliff at sunrise. Each poster asked the same question: “What if we could start again?” The show was called “Eden,” and it was about to air on Channel 4, the edgiest of Britain’s five terrestrial TV chan-

skilled strangers would live in the wilderness, isolated from the world, for a year. “Eden” would be austere and searching. There would be no tasks, evictions, or prizes. The cast members would build their own shelters and hunt and grow their food while a small embedded crew and a rig of remote cameras observed every minute of the embryonic society. The project was the work of Keo Films, a production company that had never made a reality show. “It certainly set out to be a pure experience,” Ian Dunkley, who helped commission “Eden” for Channel 4, told me recently. “Genuinely, we did not know how it would pan out.” “Eden” ’s timing was propitious. In the spring and summer of 2016, Britain was tense and introspective, contemplating the referendum on whether to

“I don’t think we realized until early summer quite how dark it was going to get,” a producer said of “Eden.” “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” (“This Is No Task for Kids!!”) endure the smelling of one another’s assholes. In the late spring of 2016, billboards appeared across Britain, advertising a show that would attempt to remake society altogether. Superimposed on landscapes that evoked an unruined world, slogans railed against the pointlessness and the cruelty of late-capitalist existence. “No poverty. No recessions. No bankers’ bonuses,” one poster, put 24


nels. In 2000, Channel 4 ran the first British series of “Big Brother,” broadcasting reality television in a manner— for hours and hours a day—that had previously been reserved for royal occasions, test-match cricket, and international disasters. The channel had been looking for an equivalent hit since giving up the franchise, in 2010, and “Eden,” with a rumored budget of fifteen million pounds, was the next contender. A group of twenty-three

leave the European Union. Channel 4’s posters trolled the nation’s lived experience. On the morning of the Brexit vote, “Eden” ads filled the newspapers: “No politics. No propaganda. No more not knowing.” The first episode aired on July 18th last year. The gaunt landscapes were revealed to be the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, the westernmost point of the British mainland, in the Scottish Highlands. “If we could start again, what kind of ILLUSTRATION BY R. KIKUO JOHNSON

world would we build?” the narrator asked, against footage of hills dense with Sitka spruce. “Would it be as divided and politically uncertain as the one we live in today?” Onscreen, “Eden” was slow and sincere. Filming had started in late March, and the participants were figuring out how to farm and how to feed themselves. The program had a guileless quality, as if it wasn’t sure if it was a documentary or something more performative. The cast seemed undecided, too. They appeared torn about whether they should build a tepee and throw parties on the beach or dedicate more time to growing kale in the soaking Scottish soil. They more or less did both. The chef kissed the yoga teacher. The boatman, a self-styled adventurer, went to live in a toolshed. At the same time, a male clique discussed starving weaker members out of the group. During its initial run of four episodes, “Eden” ’s audience, which began with two million viewers, nearly halved. A Canadian life coach named Tara Zieleman gave up and returned to normal, fallen life, complaining of being bullied. The show went off the air. The plan had been to broadcast four mini-seasons, documenting the community’s progress throughout the year. But “Eden” did not return. In October, its Twitter and Instagram feeds dried up. However, unlike other, not dissimilar reality shows (in 2014, Fox cancelled “Utopia,” a reported fifty-million-dollar project along the same lines, after two months), the makers of “Eden” persevered. The experiment went on. Stories spread about the production. The British press reported that “Eden” was secretly in chaos: that the location was rife with midge swarms and unexploded bombs and that the cast had broken out, and had been seen roaming the countryside. In its mysterious, unwitnessed state, “Eden” and its lost reality stars seemed to offer a stronger parable for these narcissistic end-times than anything deliberately conceived. After filming finished, this past March, seven months after the show was last seen, NPR’s “Morning Edition” asked, “If a person lives in the forest and is not on TV, does she make a sound?” The fate of “Eden” and its participants made the news in the Netherlands,

Germany, Portugal, and Slovakia. In Spain, newspapers called them “los olvidados del EdŽn”—the forgotten of Eden. Eden on a Friday morning a Irain.entered few weeks ago. The air was full of Bog cotton stood on the reeds in a muddy bay, and there were concrete posts with the word “Water” on them driven into the moor. I walked around the edge of the bay for about half an hour before coming upon a path that sloped up into woodland and arrived at a clearing. During the Second World War, the Ardnamurchan Peninsula was requisitioned for military training, and the northern coastline was used for livefire rehearsals of the D Day landings. Five months after filming ceased, the show’s location looked as though it had been the scene of a small but tidy war. There was a dark-blue shipping container and the outlines of eight small modular buildings, where a crew of around a dozen had spent the year collecting footage and audio from the other side of a six-foot-high wooden fence. The fence sealed Eden on two sides. The rest faced the open sea and the islands of Rum and Eigg. I followed the fence until I came to a gate hanging open, and went inside. In the fall of 2014, a pair of location scouts turned up at the office of William Kelly, the manager of the Ardnamurchan Estate, which covers much of the peninsula, and asked about shooting a TV show there. “The estate is mainly horizontal and vertical bog,” Kelly told me. “We said, ‘Yeah, fill your boots.’ ” The site that Keo and Channel 4 settled on was a six-hundredacre headland on Ardnamurchan’s northeastern side. What Eden lacked in extreme remoteness—in places there were houses only a few hundred yards away—it made up for in telegenics: spectacular dunes, ominous forest, and a broad, sandy beach. It had wood for fuel and shelter, mackerel in the spring, and deer in the fall. Donald Houston, the landowner and Kelly’s boss, wasn’t much fussed either way. “I don’t watch a huge amount of this reality bullshit on the television,” Houston told me. When we met, the laird of Ardnamurchan was eating a meat pie at his desk. Houston owns two castles, half a whiskey distillery,

and around twenty-five hundred sheep. Occasionally, he asked if anyone had seen his deerhounds. Houston noted that archeologists believed that, in the Bronze Age, the bay near Eden had sustained a community of around a thousand people. “O.K., life expectancy was maybe thirty-five in those days,” he said. He rented out the woods for one pound. For the next year, Kelly and the other estate workers accompanied TV executives who came up from London to work out the logistics of the show. Dunkley, from Channel 4, lost a boot in the mud. “It is my idea of hell,” he said. “I need central heating.” Veterans from other reality shoots were struck by the extreme conditions. “We sat round the table going, This could either be great, or it is going to be ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ” Mick Bass, who oversaw the installation of the camera rig, told me. Keo paid for the national electricity grid to be extended a mile into the forest. A risk assessment for “Eden,” compiled in November, 2015, warned of the dangers of fire, trench foot, hypothermia, and “persons becoming aggressive and acting violent due to the stresses of living wild.” Kelly and Houston watched the preparations for the show with bemusement and awe. The ground at the “Eden” site was too poor to grow crops, so a helicopter flew in a hundred tons of topsoil. “Farmers around here would give their left testicle for ground like that,” Houston said. But they weren’t fool enough to camp out in the rain for a year. “We thought they were fully mental,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t believe anyone would be fucking stupid enough to volunteer.” Inside the gate, the path into Eden led up through the trees. At first, it was heavily scored with tire tracks, from the off-road vehicles that brought in the show’s forty-six cameras, the power lines, and twenty-two kilometres of fibre-optic cable. At the peak of the headland, the path gave out. I stumbled downhill for a while, tripping on roots, until I noticed a small opening among the trees and three large heaps of cut wood. Some of the longer pieces had nails in them, with fragments of tarp attached. There were other domestic touches: a small bridge over a stream, a rough door, the THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


suggestion of a chair. I leaned down to touch something of the palest green, which turned out to be the skeleton of a sheep. I set off to find the beach where the “Eden” community lived during the summer months, but soon got lost. Steep valleys of ferns led nowhere. The rain had stopped, but I was soaking. When I finally emerged onto the dunes, clouds hung on the hills like smoke. The only remains of the “Eden” camp were some old fire pits and more bones. A young buzzard hovered for a long time, and then sped away. I picked my way along the shore, falling once or twice in the seaweed, before I found a hole in the fence and clambered out. The first person I met was a woman in a blue anorak walking her dog. I asked if she knew what the enclosure was for. “Aye,” she said. “That reality show.” She cocked her ear to the silence of the forest. “Are they still in there?” round two thousand people apA plied to join “Eden.” The producers placed notices on military forums, Christian environmentalist Web sites, and Facebook pages popular with doctors who volunteered overseas. “Do you want to start a new life?” the ads began. Robert Jackson, an apprentice electrician from Preston, in Lancashire, saw one in the Daily Star, a raunchy tabloid, on a construction site. The show sought applicants with “an enthusiasm to not only survive but thrive in an area rich in natural resources but very little else.” Jackson had recently returned from the Himalayas, where he had spent time in an off-grid community. “It was just gorgeous,” he told me. Back in Britain, he was struck by the isolation of people’s lives. Another volunteer, Glenn Moores, had been an I.T. contractor when, at the age of twentyseven, he discerned a future of mortgage payments and ennui. “I thought, I still have a chance to not go down this route,” he said. He retrained as a deer hunter. Now in his mid-thirties, he e-mailed Keo Films without expecting to hear anything. They called him back in fifteen minutes. “We put them together based on skill,” Liz Foley, the series’ editor, told me. Some abilities were harder to source than others. Robert Pattinson, a veterinarian, was signed up six days before 26


shooting began. In late March, 2016, the twenty-three cast members were taken individually to hotels in the Highlands and checked in under fake names. They were allowed to bring a single large backpack and their “tools of the trade.” On the morning of March 23rd, all the participants went through one of Eden’s gates, wearing microphones, GoPro cameras, and G.P.S. Man Down packs, to monitor their heart rates and trace them if they got lost. Moores taped twelve bottles of whiskey to the outside of his pack; Jackson forgot to bring waterproof boots. “I fell into the bogs real heavy,” he told me. He was relieved when he saw the group’s small flock of goats, chickens, pigs, and sheep. “I was, like, Thank God,” he said. “I expected to be eating bark.” It rained heavily the first night, and the men and women of “Eden,” who barely knew one another’s names, slept huddled under tarps. While the estate workers and the producers were preparing the site, they often found themselves congregating in a sheltered clearing behind the dunes, not far from the sea. They left the cast’s initial supplies there—rations for a hundred days, seeds and plants to grow, and the toolshed—and rigged the cameras to film it. After a few days, the group chose to build a camp there. Watching the footage from the outside, the production team was elated. Foley spent

the opening weeks of the shoot grinning. “A lot,” she told me. “Thinking, Look at them. Look at what they are achieving. This is going to work.” Jackson was also excited by Eden’s potential. There were doctors, paramedics, an Army captain, a shepherdess, a fisherman, and a carpenter. The boatman, Anton Wright, had rowed the length of the Amazon. “I remember thinking, How lucky are we to have this group of people?” Jackson said. Others

were more skeptical. Andrew Whitelock, known as Titch, a plumber from Yorkshire who had taught survival courses, noted how few supplies many of the participants had brought with them. “People had come in with backpacks with bugger-all in it,” he said. “I was, like, What kind of thing are we doing? It just seemed to me, people came into this underprepared.” The volunteers also quickly became conscious that they had different attitudes to being on TV. Wright had previously applied to be on “Big Brother,” but others, like Josie Hall, a late addition to the cast, who had previously worked in a fair-trade supermarket, did not own a television. The camera-shy searched for places in Eden where they could disappear, and take off their microphone packs for a few hours. But a loudspeaker system rigged in the trees, known as the Voice of God, would tell them to put them back on again. On day six, Hall wrote in her diary, “I’m trying to believe in this community, and to trust in Keo (because otherwise, what can I do?). But did they really choose people to make this work? . . . TV is weird. I don’t know if I can get past that.” A few of the cast members with specific tasks soon got a sense of how hard life in Eden was going to be. The group’s gardener, Rachel Butterworth, lost weeks of the planting season preparing the soil and transporting a heap of compost half a mile across the headland. Pattinson, the vet, had nowhere to gather the sheep. After surveying the dense forest, Moores, the deer hunter, realized that there would be nothing to shoot until July: “I just looked around and thought, How the hell am I going to do this?” The group decided to eke out their initial rations over the entire twelve months and entrusted them to the Army captain. “People kind of panicked,” Pattinson recalled. Hunger stalked the first months in Eden. There were moments when it seemed as though the experiment was working: there was a rota system for jobs around the camp, and a few weeks when the mackerel came in. But, surviving on meagre bowls of potatoes or barley, the participants soon fractured between those who felt that they were carrying the community and those who

felt dominated as a result. A crude hierarchy formed, based mainly on physical strength. “You could see that some people were yearning to take control of things,” Jackson said. Group meetings did not go well. Hall, who had written a short book about communal living, asked each member of Eden to write down a vision for the community. No one bothered. “I kept hearing the word ‘mindful’ quite a lot,” Titch, the plumber, told me. “A lot of hippie-dippie stuff.” nly a few residents of ArdnamurO chan had any sense of what was going on behind the fence. David John Cameron, whose family has lived on the peninsula for hundreds of years, worked on the show as a production assistant. Like most local people, the Camerons survived on tourism and small-scale farming. It was Cameron’s job to mail hard copies of the footage to London. On his days off, he grew vegetables and chopped wood. He would stop by the production room and watch the group dithering and bickering. “It drove me insane, watching twelve of them have a meeting about how to dig a furrow,” Cameron said. “Just get on and dig it. You can see the clouds coming. Get on with it.” On the other side of the bay, Andrew and Margaret Green, a part-time accountant and his wife, would hear the group swearing as they adapted to their new life. “They were out of their depth,” Andrew Green said. The couple had been alarmed by the idea of the show as soon as they had heard about it. “We wanted the right people to come here, not the wrong people,” Margaret Green told me. “Dutch people used to come every year.” In London, the producers at Channel 4 received a daily log of what was happening on the show. “I don’t think we realized until early summer quite how dark it was going to get,” Dunkley told me. After weeks of growing tension, Titch suggested at a group meeting that the men of Eden should do “manly” jobs, like fishing, and the women should do “womanly” jobs, like washing dishes. Watching the feed, Foley was taken aback. “It was, like, O.K., this could be interesting,” she said. The chore system fell apart and the initial split within the community

¥ hardened. Some of the men suggested padlocking the ration barrel, to prevent stealing. Ali Blatcher, one of the doctors in the cast, was reading “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari, and she came across a passage about how men controlled access to food and tools in hunter-gatherer communities a hundred thousand years ago. “I was seeing that play out right in front of my eyes,” she said. The group’s cook, a garrulous chef from Sunderland named Stephen Etherington, had come to Eden because he wanted his own TV show. He skipped most of the meetings. “People took themselves pretty fucking seriously,” he told me, rolling his eyes. Etherington had brought in sourdough starter and one-kilo jars of cumin and coriander. Whenever he could, he would corral one of the embedded crew members to film his knife work and talk through the day’s potato recipe in the kitchen. At the end of the day, Etherington would replay what he had

¥ done, wondering which bits would make the edit. In the production room, Cameron, the runner, found Etherington’s cooking-show reel hilarious. “You are in there for a year, mate,” he said. “You need to calm it.” The early interactions between the producers and the community were firm. The cast members were allowed to leave letters with their microphone packs, which were recharged every day. But when Pattinson asked for materials with which to build a sheep pen, or Butterworth asked for nets to keep butterflies off the plants, they were rebuffed. “They said, ‘We are not your minders,’ ” Butterworth recalled. Eden was supposed to be cut off and self-reliant. “If you respond, you are creating that environment where they can ask, and they are relying on you,” Foley said. But the rejections irked the participants, especially as they began to suspect that not everybody was abiding by “Eden” ’s rules of isolation and noninterference from the outside world. The fence ran next to a public footpath, and THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


some of the cast would chat with walkers going past, and ask for snacks. There were rumors of illicit drop-offs of chocolate and cigarettes. When Zieleman, the life coach, walked out of Eden, in late May, part of the reason was the cheating. “That killed the integrity of the whole thing,” she told me. In June, the group’s yoga teacher, Jasmine Comber, tried to leave twice, but the producers persuaded her to return. Comber was one of the youngest people in Eden, blond, and making out with the chef. The crew allowed her to call her father before returning to the woods. “We all wanted to speak to our families,” Hall wrote in her journal. “How could Keo do this to us?” By early July, with “Eden” still a few weeks from broadcast, five people had left the show. On July 7th, Foley went back to London, taking her first weekend off since the start of the shoot. That night, Moores, the deer hunter, and an outdoorsman named Tom Wah decided to quit as well. Wah thought he would have a kayak on the show, and was missing his girlfriend. Moores had lost sixty pounds and was fed up. “It was all going to tits,” he said. It was raining when the men reached the gate. Two junior members of the production team were on duty. They drove Moores and Wah to Glenborrodale Castle, the crew’s headquarters, where they ate venison pie and drank beer. The next day, Foley and Moores spoke several times on the phone. “I said, ‘Look at what you have put me into,’ ” Moores recalled. “ ‘Look at this carnage.’ ” He was told that the community needed him for their winter meat supply. “They twisted my arm to go back in,” he said. Foley remembered the exchange differently. “It was very, very apparent that he regretted it,” she told me. “Hugely.” In the afternoon, Moores went back to Eden. Foley was conscious of the risk of being seen to meddle with the community. “It would be producing it,” she said, “and the concept of this is that we are not producing it.” When the rest of the cast saw Moores, they became angry. He was a divisive figure, and some had been delighted when he and Wah left, because their absence had weakened the emerging all-male 28



You shouldn’t be surprised that the place you always sought, and now have been given, carries with it a certain disappointment. Here you are, finally inside, and not a friend in sight. The only gaiety that exists is the gaiety you’ve brought with you, and how little you had to bring. The bougainvillea outside your front window, like the gardener himself, has the look of something that wants constant praise. And the exposed wooden beams, once a main attraction, now feel pretentious, fit for someone other than you. But it’s yours now and you suspect you’ll be known by the paintings you hang, the books you shelve, and no doubt your need to speak about the wallpaper as if it weren’t your fault. Perhaps that’s why wherever you go these days vanity has followed you like a clownish dog. You’re thinking that with a house like this you should throw a big party and invite a Nick Carraway and ask him to bring your dream girl, and would he please also referee the uncertainties of the night? You’re thinking that some fictional characters can be better friends than real friends can ever be. For weeks now your dreams have been offering you their fractured truths. You don’t know how to inhabit them yet, and it might cost another fortune to find out. Why not just try to settle in, take your place, however undeserved, among the fortunate? Why not trust that almost everyone, even in his own house, is a troubled guest? —Stephen Dunn faction. More broadly, though, the remaining participants believed that, if people could come and go from Eden as they pleased, the show was going to hell. “I was furious he was there,” Jackson said. He cast about for a suitable analogy. “If I sign a mobile-phone contract, I expect the mobile phone I signed for,” he said. “I signed for a certain set of rules.” By early evening, Eden was in rebellion. The cast covered cameras and took off their microphones. They put their hands together as one and swore

an oath to escape and drink in the nearest pub, which was about six miles away, although no one was quite sure where. In all, fifteen of “Eden” ’s seventeen remaining participants joined the protest. (One was in the hospital with a broken finger; Wright spent the evening whittling oars.) “We wanted to revolt,” Jackson said. “We wanted to not bend from lies.” The men and women of “Eden” made it about three miles before a crew member handed them a cell phone. It was Foley, calling from London. She

warned them that they were about to destroy the program. “I just reminded people, ‘This is not what you want to do,’ ” she recalled. The group turned back, and the gate closed behind them. The first episode of “Eden” aired ten days later. he walkout happened on a Friday T night. When Cameron arrived for work on Monday morning, he sensed that a fundamental dynamic within Eden had changed. “If it was a train, it was on a junction,” he told me. “It didn’t keep going the way it was envisioned from that point on.” In the following days, the cast members demanded that people who left not be readmitted without a community vote. They also started asking for things that would make their lives easier. They were given cement and a chimney flue. Etherington and Titch, who had grown close, asked for a monthly delivery of twenty-five kilograms of sugar and fast-acting yeast. Previously, it had taken the group up to a month to brew alcohol, which they had flavored with nettles and pinecones. But the “turbo yeast” took only forty-eight hours and could make a forty-proof moonshine. “You just put sugar, yeast, and water,” Titch said. “Boom.” Each request posed a dilemma for Foley. “It is the hardest producing I have ever done,” she said. If the crew said no, they risked another protest and hours of wasted footage. “That is all they talked about, so then you can’t use that,” Foley told me. Channel 4 signed off on each concession. In London, Dunkley came to view the struggle between the cast and their observers as part of the experiment. When I asked if he was afraid that the volunteers would destroy “Eden,” he replied, “Yes, it was a fear. And I think that was part of the joy of the commission.” Inside Eden, the new conditions were bewildering. After months of hardship, the sudden gifts only accentuated the power of those behind the cameras and the artificial nature of the construct. “You are being manipulated,” Moores said. Butterworth, the gardener, was distraught. “I had gone in there to be cut off from the outside world,” she said. Butterworth works in food education, and she worried about

how “Eden” would be televised. “People were spooning white sugar into their mouths, because we were starving,” she told me. She lost her motivation. The garden, in which Butterworth had managed to grow a stunted harvest, was soon consumed with weeds. During August, she thought she was having a breakdown. She imagined that she was in Eden permanently, and that if she tried to leave she would be caught by the police and brought back. “I totally believed it,” she said. “That is how ill we all got in there.” On August 16th, she climbed the fence and walked away. The beauty and the rawness of Eden were still overwhelming. Pattinson, the vet, had grown up on a hill farm in Northumberland and often loved his days on the headland. “It was just good,” he said. “Wake up when the sun came up. Get a fire going. Boil your kettle. Make your tea. Feed the hens, feed the goats, check the eggs.” Pattinson was in a relationship with Katie Tunn, an artist and a marine conservationist, who often clashed with the more boorish men in the cast. Using fallen trees and stones, she and Pattinson built an aerie looking out over the bay and called it the Rabbit Hole. Deeper in the woods, five men lived together and called themselves the Valley Boys. They felled trees to make cabins, shot deer, and talked crap all day. Etherington’s house, which he shared with Titch, had running water from a nearby stream. “I found a man inside me that I didn’t know existed,” Etherington told me. “An absolute primal beast.” Eden came to feel increasingly lawless. Wright struggled to integrate with the rest of the cast. “It was the most horrific thing I have ever lived through,” he told me. “I started getting called a cunt every single day.” He and the group’s carpenter, Raphael Meade, lived together. As the discipline of the show eroded, Wright took planks from the Eden fence to build furniture. One night, he broke into the crew’s electrical shed and stole a chair, which he turned into a toilet seat. “It became Anton versus production,” he told me. Wright befriended a man living in a cottage across the bay. He snuck out to get drunk, dodging the flashlights of the production team on his way back.

“In the autumn, they did nothing but drink, really,” Cameron said. One boozy afternoon ended in a physical confrontation between Wright and other members of the cast. A few days later, the group decided to vote on whether to expel him and Meade. “There were people fearful of a violent backlash from Anton,” said Moores, who slept with a hammer under his pillow. “He was unstable at that point.” When the two men were narrowly voted out, they pulled down their house and burned it. Arguments became constant. “I would love to say that people got something from the isolation, but basically it just turned fucking ugly,” Etherington said. Margaret Green, living across the water, found that she could no longer do the ironing in her front room. She used to work as a police dispatcher and recognized the anguish as real. “It would all of a sudden go quiet,” she said. “And you were, like, What’s happened?” Over time, the factions that had formed in the early months of “Eden” crystallized into two communities: the Valley Boys and everyone else. Jackson, who lived in the mixed group, wondered if they had failed. In October, the cast learned that the second series of “Eden” had not been broadcast. oredom became a factor. To kill B time, Titch and Etherington would walk the dunes looking for unexploded shells from the war. (Bomb-disposal squads were sent to Eden seven times.) No one was sure who was sticking to the rules, or receiving favors from production. A rumor spread that there was a mobile phone among the group, and that some people were in touch with their families. Information always had a strange currency inside Eden. The cast learned of Brexit and Trump’s election from passing walkers but did not know if the news was true. To hide their knowledge from the cameras, they passed notes inside books. One day, Etherington opened a novel and found out that Prince had died. The cast members also relentlessly exchanged rumors about one another. In November, the group decided to split their rations, deepening the divide between the two factions. A story spread that the Valley Boys, who had THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


been experimenting with an all-meat diet, were intending to slaughter all the animals in Eden. Pattinson, the vet, cracked. On December 7th, he waited until darkness fell and then scrambled over the fence and ran into the woods. He walked for nine miles in the rain before he came to a holiday cottage. He found a key under a stone and slept on the floor. “I was so pleased to be free,” he said. The next morning, an estate worker picked him up hitchhiking near Ockle, in the north of Ardnamurchan. Kelly, the estate manager, phoned the production office. “We have found one of your escapees,” he said. In a memoir of Brook Farm, a utopian community that briefly thrived in Massachusetts in the eighteenforties, John Thomas Codman recalled the group’s final days. “It was like a knotted skein slowly unraveling,” he wrote. “It was as the ice becomes water, and runs silently away.” After Pattinson left, there were ten in Eden. In the Highland midwinter, it was dark sixteen hours a day. Hall spent much of the time reading. “Quite often we would joke, We can’t believe people are watching this,” she said. For Christmas, the groups made presents for each other, and smuggled in rum and fairy lights, but the day ended in a fight. The communities counted down the last hundred days, and on March 20th this year, twelve months after they entered Eden, the remaining cast members left in pairs, filmed by drones as they walked out through the gate. They were taken to Glenborrodale Castle, where they were shown a newsreel of the year that they had missed. Jackson found it overwhelming. “Like, the terror in people’s faces,” he said. Etherington was drinking a pint of white wine. “I always felt like the world was moving forward,” he said. “I was, like, How have we backtracked?” Hall, who is mixed race, was scared. When Moores saw that Britain and the United States had split more or less fifty-fifty over both Brexit and Trump, he wondered whether the division within Eden had expressed something fundamental about the way that humans live together. “It seems to me just a natural number,” 30


he told me. “It is binary. You are either in one camp or the other. It is us and them. Things tribalize.” he survivors spent three days at the T castle, resting and talking to a psychologist. It was odd to walk on carpet and to sleep in a bed. Etherington and Titch, who had spent virtually every day together in Eden, caught themselves introducing themselves to each other.There was no airdate for the remaining episodes of the show, so the cast drifted back to their old lives. Pattinson resumed his work as a vet. Jackson went back to working on construction sites in Lancashire. Moores returned to I.T. contracting. Those who had aspirations of TV work wondered how they were coming across in the edit. Etherington drafted some pilots for cooking shows and went to meetings at production companies. The British press noticed that the year was up, and the story went around the world of a reality show in the wilderness which had been cancelled without its participants knowing. The cast knew that this wasn’t true. It was their first taste of the narratives that were beginning to form around “Eden”—about its delayed broadcast, and about their behavior in the woods. Kelly Webb-Lamb, the head of factual entertainment at Channel 4, told me that part of the reason it took so long for the rest of “Eden” to appear was to give the participants a chance to explain themselves. “When we started to see some of the darker, more uncomfortable things, it felt like the right thing to do to let them come out and be able to reflect and talk about that,” she said. In the spring, the participants were invited to London and interviewed individually on camera. In late July, Channel 4 announced that the final eight months of the experiment would be broadcast over five nights in August, as “Eden: Paradise Lost.”The rebranding made some of the cast feel that the premise of the series had shifted, and that it would be more like a conventional reality show. “When was it ever going to be paradise, guys?” Moores asked. The group was invited to Keo’s offices for an advance screening of the first new episode. I met Etherington earlier in the day. He was trying to be upbeat. He still hoped that a chance might come his way. But he also wished that the final edit

would acknowledge the show’s experimental nature, and the fallibility of its makers, as well as of the people who were its guinea pigs. “What you should really do is just come out and say, ‘Do you know what? We couldn’t do it. Because it went so mental,’ ” he said. “ ‘We are really sorry. We fucked up. Here it is.’ ” The broadcasts began on Monday, August 7th. Wright had reserved the back room of a pub in Cambridge, where he lives on a narrowboat. A local reporter filmed the event on his phone. As the room filled with friends, Wright called out, “I want to apologize in advance!” The opening titles of “Eden: Paradise Lost” were heavy on flames. Much of the first episode centered on Wright’s alienation from the group. While he was giving a soliloquy onscreen about stealing apricots, he checked his phone to see the reaction on social media. One viewer, @IronManMode, tweeted, “I do hope this ends with Anton being flayed alive and eaten while the rest of the team dance around wearing masks made out of his skin.” Pattinson and Tunn watched the shows together in Northumberland. The new episodes included the walkout, and some of the contraband that the group smuggled in, but mostly elided the role of the producers. “It is hard to watch, because you know that so much happened that they can’t put on,” Tunn said. On the Wednesday, Etherington flew to Bali to get away from it all. We spoke before he left for the airport. “I just hope that people can use their fucking brains and work out that is not exactly how it was,” he said. “That is not exactly how it fucking was.” Just under nine hundred thousand people tuned in to watch “Eden: Paradise Lost.” The audience ebbed in the course of the week. As the show ended, images of the men and women of Eden faded away against the bogs of Ardnamurchan. The show aired almost exactly a year after Butterworth, the gardener, left Eden. She watched the first two episodes, until her departure, and then stopped, because it was too upsetting. “It was bringing back feelings from a year ago which I have been working to get over,” she told me. “They didn’t know what it was like to be in there. It still haunts us. It is not something that just ends as soon as you climb over the fence.” 



OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS In Israel, a hit TV show is set in the West Bank. What’s left offscreen? BY DAVID REMNICK

1949, Yizhar Smilansky, a young IandnIsraeli veteran, national legislator, novelist writing under the pen name S. Yizhar, published “Khirbet Khizeh,” a novella about the destruction of a lightly fictionalized Palestinian village near Ash­ kelon, some thirty miles south of Tel Aviv. Writing from the point of view of a disillusioned Israeli soldier, Yizhar de­ scribes the Army’s capture of the village and the expulsion of its remaining in­ habitants. The time is 1948, the moment of Israel’s independence and its subse­ quent victory over five invading Arab armies that had hoped to erase the fledg­ ling Jewish state from the map. It would be forty years before the New Histori­ ans—Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Simha Flapan among them—marshalled the nerve and the documentary evidence

required to shatter the myth that hun­ dreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had all voluntarily “abandoned” their cit­ ies and villages. Yizhar was there to bear witness in real time. He wrote from per­ sonal experience; he had been an intel­ ligence officer in the war. In “Khirbet Khizeh,” Yizhar’s protagonist is sickened as he comes across an Arab woman who watches as her home is levelled: “She had suddenly understood, it seemed, that it wasn’t just about waiting under the sycamore tree to hear what the Jews wanted and then to go home, but that her home and her world had come to a full stop, and everything had turned dark and was collapsing; suddenly she had grasped something inconceivable, terri­ ble, incredible, standing directly before her, real and cruel, body to body, and

“Fauda” follows an undercover Israeli unit trying to ensnare a terrorist mastermind. 32


there was no going back.” Just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry, the soldier wonders, have we now be­ come oppressors? Have the Arabs now been sent into exile? And why can’t I bring myself to protest? “Khirbet Khi­ zeh” eventually became part of the Is­ raeli public­school curriculum. In the late nineteen­seventies, a de­ cade after the Six­Day War and the Is­ raeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a young filmmaker named Ram Loevy proposed adapting “Khir­ bet Khizeh” for Israeli television. Loevy’s father had edited a Jewish newspaper in Danzig and escaped Europe on one of the last ships to leave Occupied France for Palestine. As a teen­ager, in the fifties, Loevy was an ardent Zionist. He was radiantly proud of the country that his people were building and unquestion­ ing of its official history. And so he lis­ tened with “amazement” when his Scout­ master read Yizhar’s novella aloud to him and a group of other boys. “I knew things hadn’t happened exactly as Zion­ ist propaganda had said,” Loevy, who is seventy­seven, told me. “This story re­ ally opened my mind.” The state broadcasting authorities initially rejected Loevy’s proposal, but, after a prolonged bureaucratic battle, he finally gained permission and an ade­ quate budget, and completed the film. It was scheduled to air after the evening news on February 6, 1978. On the morn­ ing of the broadcast, however, state offi­ cials, led by the Minister of Education, declared that it could not be shown. Turmoil ensued. Yossi Sarid, a left­ leaning Knesset member, declared, “The flag of freedom of speech in Israel has been lowered to half­mast.” To protest the government censorship, Israel’s tele­ vision station—there was only one in those days—decided to show nothing at all in the time slot: forty­eight minutes of a black screen. Government ministers “viewed the directors of the Israel Broadcasting Au­ thority as traitors,” Rogel Alpher, a tele­ vision critic for Haaretz, told me. The film made plain that the War of Inde­ pendence, for all its heroism, involved a crime—and, for many people, that im­ plicit acknowledgment was impermissi­ ble for the public airwaves.Tommy Lapid, a journalist and a rising political figure, did not deny the events of 1948, but he ILLUSTRATION BY R. KIKUO JOHNSON

argued that the film would inflame anti­Semitism among the Arabs. In the end, the right lost the battle: the Min­ ister of Education lacked the authority to quash the film. A week later, on Feb­ ruary 13th, the authorities agreed to show “Khirbet Khizeh.” But just once. The evening of the broadcast, there was little traffic in the streets. Everyone watched it, and everyone discussed it. “Of course, some people on the right said that the expulsion of the Palestin­ ians was what should happen with the rest of the Arabs in Israel!” Loevy re­ called. “And there were some on the left who thought the film was disappoint­ ing because it didn’t show our soldiers being even more brutal.” It was not shown again for fourteen years. “Today, a film like ‘Khirbet Khi­ zeh’ would be impossible,” Alpher said. “You won’t be jailed for it, but the sub­ ject of the Nakba”—the Arabic term for the “catastrophe” of Palestinian expul­ sion and exile, in 1948—“cannot be men­ tioned unless you want to be branded a ‘leftist.’ ” As Israel has become more and more nationalist, as the left has receded since the failure of the Oslo Accords and the violence of the second intifada, more than a decade ago, the term “oc­ cupation,” kiboosh, marks its user as being outside the mainstream, and, for broad­ casters, in journalism or in entertain­ ment, it invites not only marginalization but hate mail, threats, and even angry phone calls from government offices. Many leading journalists, including a liberal like Ilana Dayan, the host of “Uvda” (“Fact”), an edgier version of “60 Minutes,” have told me that they think twice before using the word. Perhaps the most daring moment on television came in 1998, the fiftieth an­ niversary of the State of Israel, with the airing of “Tekuma,” or “Rebirth,” a twenty­two­part documentary series that provoked criticism on the right for providing the Palestinian view of his­ tory alongside the Zionist narrative. The series included reporting on massacres, discrimination, expulsions. Ariel Sha­ ron, in a letter of protest to the Minis­ ter of Education, called for the series to be banned from state schools, complain­ ing that it “distorts the history of the rebirth and undermines any moral basis for the establishment of the State of Is­ rael and its continued existence.”

Two decades later, the Israeli public is generally less welcoming of such self­examination. In the past several years, the Israeli­Palestinian conflict has been portrayed in features such as “Bethle­ hem” and “Rock the Casbah” and in doc­ umentaries such as “5 Broken Cameras,” “The Gatekeepers,” “The Settlers,” and “Megiddo,” but these films seem to have more resonance abroad than they do in Israel. There is little daily discussion of the occupation, or of the mass displace­ ment that preceded it. The economy is good, technology thrives, relatively sta­ ble alliances have been formed with Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states––and life “on the other side of the wall” is of only episodic concern. The politics of the late Netanyahu era is the politics of one week to the next. The government’s various financial scandals far eclipse the Palestinian question in the news. Stabil­ ity might be an illusion, but it is an illu­ sion that, day to day, defeats most at­ tempts to penetrate it. “The problem of the Nakba has not been tackled much onscreen after ‘Khir­ bet Khizeh,’ ” Loevy said. “It’s a raw sub­ ject. The problem is this: if we are re­ sponsible, at least partly, for the flight of the Palestinian refugees, then we have to do something about it.” He went on, “Guilt and denial are twins. We know that what has happened to those old­ time inhabitants, the Palestinians, may happen to us, and that counting on His promises may be walking on thin ice.” an Israeli series in Hebrew “ F auda,” and Arabic that premièred in 2015

and streams in subtitled translation on Netflix, takes its title from the Arabic word for chaos; it’s also the Mayday code word used by the Israeli special forces when a mission goes belly up. A disguise has been seen through? Fauda! The getaway van stalls? Fauda! The story centers on Doron Kabilyo, a saturnine special­forces soldier who, as the series begins, has retired and gone off to live on a small vineyard, where he plays with his two kids, scowls at his wife, and, some­ times, makes wine. When his former com­ mander visits and tells him that a noto­ rious Hamas terrorist whom Kabilyo thought he had killed is, in fact, alive and planning more operations, Kabilyo rejoins his old unit. It’s an unfinished­ business, one­last­mission plot. Set in

the West Bank, “Fauda” makes a prom­ ise to go beyond the usual ingredients of the thriller series—intelligence gath­ ering, interludes of violent action, and bouts of lugubrious reflection and sple­ netic recrimination. The setting is the flashpoint of a fifty­year­long occupa­ tion, and the show’s creators believe that they have made not only a deft work of entertainment but also a drama that gets at the political dynamic of the Israeli­ Palestinian conflict. Lior Raz, a former soldier in the special forces, conceived and wrote the series with an old friend, Avi Issacha­ roff, a combat veteran and a well­known journalist. Raz, who is forty­five, also plays Doron Kabilyo, although he is hardly a dashing Sabra or a natural leading man. Like many Israeli men, he shaves his head rather than suffer the encroaching indignity of male­pat­ tern baldness, and his visage has a stub­ bly, moonfaced aspect. A three­inch scar, a souvenir from a car crash, slashes down across his forehead and lends him a man­with­a­past air. He is built as solidly as a trash compactor, and his resting expression is one of irritable disappointment. Raz lives with his wife and children in a suburb just north of Tel Aviv, but he grew up mainly in Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Jew­ ish settlements in the West Bank—a city of about forty thousand that Israe­ lis generally consider a bedroom com­ munity of Jerusalem rather than some sort of fanatical hilltop outpost. (Not all Palestinians make the distinction.) He is from a Mizrahi, or Middle East­ ern, background; his father was born in Iraq, his mother in Algeria. His father was a career officer in the Israeli equiv­ alent of the Navy Seals and in the Shin Bet, the intelligence services; when the family entertained, they did so in a way that would have struck most Ashke­ nazim as alien. People frequently spoke Arabic in the house and played music from across the Middle East. Later, his father ran a plant nursery, and Lior’s friends were Arab kids from Azaria and Jericho who worked there. When Raz was eighteen, he joined Duvdevan, an élite counterterrorism unit that was conceived in 1986 and began operations not long before the first intifada erupted in the occupied THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


territories. Duvdevan means “cherry” in Hebrew—a reflection of its cherry-ontop status in the military. It’s the model for the unnamed unit on “Fauda.” Not long ago, I met Raz in the town of Giv’at Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, where his martial-arts instructor, an Army buddy named Nimrod Astel, has a studio. Their unit was stationed just outside Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the West Bank and the base for the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The ethos and the training resembled that of the Navy Seals— ruthless, brutal, and constant. Ignoring pain was no small part of the regimen. “We spent fifteen months getting punched over and over in the abdomen before we went to bed every night,” Raz said. “We were eighteen, and you just don’t know what you are doing,” Astel said. “I thought we were going to be like James Bond, wearing black tie and drinking a Martini and getting the bad guys.” “Instead, we got fatigues and a falafel in Ramallah,” Raz said. Military service is compulsory in Israel, and he and his friends aspired to Duvdevan, he said, not for any ideological reasons but because “you want to be part of the best people in the country, to test yourself. You want to be true to your friends, to protect them and be part of a team that works together.” The squad at the center of “Fauda” works much as Raz and Astel’s did. Its operations are performed as quick “inand-out jobs,” to arrest a suspected terrorist or to disrupt a terror operation. Duvdevan’s members adhered to the maxim “In any shape, in any place, at any time.” Uri Bar-Lev, the first commander of the unit, told me, “Sometimes you look like a stone, sometimes like a tourist, sometimes like an Arab.” The series opens with members of the unit driving up to a mosque near Ramallah and, dressed as Palestinians, kidnapping a Hamas militant agent at prayer. In a later episode, Kabilyo seduces a Palestinian doctor, played by Laëtitia Eïdo, in order to get closer to a terrorist who is recovering from a gunshot wound in the hospital where she works. That sort of stratagem is pure hokum, but other operational details stick close to the real thing. Members of Duvdevan do not recount past missions––those “have to re34


main dark,” Raz said––but they speak in highly moralistic terms about the unit, how they were selected for their sense of probity and poise. “We were chosen because we were meant to be calm, moral, not to lose our minds in the midst of trouble, to think, not to behave like an animal,” Raz told me. Duvdevan prided itself on the efficiency of its maneuvers, the avoidance of mass casualties. Astel said that when he hears of American forces dropping a bomb on a wedding in Afghanistan or a Russian aircraft destroying a hospital in Syria he has a hard time taking seriously the moral criticism directed at Israeli behavior in the West Bank. “The job was to capture the bad guy as quietly as possible, to avoid killing or hurting anyone else,” Astel said. “At the end of every operation, there was a debriefing about what had happened, and you have to assess whether you have done a dirty job in the cleanest way possible.” Three days after leaving the Army, Raz headed to Los Angeles with a hundred and twenty-five dollars in his pocket. He worked as a guard for Nastassja Kinski and then for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. This life proved numbingly uneventful. “After the Army, guarding a house was pretty boring,” he says. Back in Israel, Raz worked as a drummer in a disco and as a creative director at an ad agency; prodded by a girlfriend to pursue his artistic ambitions, he started taking acting lessons and getting roles in various theatre and TV productions. And he began thinking of a project that would draw on the most dangerous years of his life. For some two decades, Raz and his first comrades in the unit didn’t talk about the uglier side of their work, the price exacted on Palestinians, and the price exacted on them. “It all stayed there and deep inside of us,” he said. “As a person, you wake up eventually and discover that you have post-traumatic stress disorder. You realize you are tense all the time, stressed, you aren’t sleeping, you’re on edge, always on alert. I was giving a lecture the other day at some high-tech firm and I clicked the clicker for a snippet of film about ‘Fauda’ and just the sound of the show—the gunfire—set me off. I was suddenly so stressed. I was im-

mediately looking for the door.” He went on, “We live in a post-traumatic society, all of us.” It was only when Raz was in his mid-thirties that he began to grasp why he kept having the same dream, the battle in which his gun would jam or he would fire and the bullet would just dribble out of the barrel and plink on the ground. “You don’t feel the stress when you are in the unit. You are in fighting mode all the time,” he said. “It’s only later, when you are back home, much later, that you feel it in your neck, in your back, in your mind. It takes years to understand the situation. I went to a therapist nine years ago. I was about to get married. I was stressed. I just wanted to be a good husband. After about five minutes of the therapy, he said, ‘You have P.T.S.D., let’s talk about it.’ ” What really put Raz’s mind at ease, however, was setting out to work with Issacharoff writing “Fauda.” “That was my real therapy,” he said. he Israeli television business begins T with an obvious disadvantage: the audience is roughly the size of Queens

County. Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend not to watch commercial television, and many Palestinian Israelis, who live in Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm, Acre, Haifa, and other cities and towns, watch Arabic-language stations on satellite.The major production companies, Keshet and Reshet, which create programs for the biggest broadcast channel, Channel 2, struggle to break even; they hope to tumble into profit by selling properties abroad. The most successful example of that is “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), an excellent series about two Israeli soldiers, abducted in Lebanon, who come home after seventeen years in captivity. “Homeland,” its American progeny, won eight Emmys for Showtime and big earnings for Keshet. HBO’s “In Treatment” also began with an Israeli version. HBO and Keshet will make a scripted series about the fateful events in the summer of 2014 when a Palestinian teen-ager was kidnapped and burned alive by three Israelis as retribution for the deaths of three Israelis three days earlier. When Keshet and Reshet passed on “Fauda,” Raz and Issacharoff went to

Yes, a satellite television provider that claims six hundred thousand subscribers. During the pitch meeting, they were told, not for the first time, that the script was too macho; women wouldn’t go for it. But, in the end, Yes took a chance. A glitch for Raz was that he had to audition for the lead role, a circumstance that he found “upsetting”—it reminded him of Sylvester Stallone being forced to negotiate to play the title role in his own script for “Rocky.” But that was hardly the main worry. “Before we aired ‘Fauda,’ we were petrified,” Danna Stern, the executive in charge of Yes acquisitions and sales, said. “The title is in Arabic and practically all the dialogue is in Arabic and the picture of the main terrorist is not done in black-and-white. It’s painted in shades in between. We had a war room set up because we expected a shit storm.” Raz and Issacharoff shared these anxieties. They feared that the right wing in Israel would say that the show had “humanized the terrorists”; they feared that the left, along with Arab viewers, would say that its portrayal of humane soldiers was a romantic farce and that it portrayed Palestinians only as terrorists. “ ‘Fauda’ was an eyeopener to a lot of people in Israel in that it showed compassion, in a way, to a Palestinian terrorist, or at least you get a sense of why he would do what he does,” Issacharoff said. “You see people involved in terror as humans, as people who love, who have kids, who are not just flat bad guys in an action picture.” He was concerned that the subject was off-putting. “No one wants to talk about or see the conflict. It’s boring.” “Fauda” aims to provide a complex portrait of both the unit and life in the occupied territories. The viewer is introduced to the extended family of the central terrorist: a wife who loves him but must pretend that he is dead; a protégé who reveres him but grows disillusioned with his ruthlessness; a young woman whose husband-to-be is shot to death at their wedding, and who, in her fury and despair, volunteers to be a shaheeda, a martyr, and strap on a suicide vest. All around are ordinary Palestinians who suffer under the detested occupation but go about

“I’m between reasons right now.”

• their daily lives as best they can. The West Bank scenes were filmed mainly in Kfar Qasim, an Arab city just west of the West Bank. The city has a charged history: in 1956, during the Suez Crisis, it was the scene of a massacre of several dozen Arabs by Israeli police. In recent years, Israeli politicians, including Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin, have apologized for the crime. Both Raz and Issacharoff consider themselves “pro-peace,” pro-two-statesolution. But they are not far from the Israeli mainstream. One morning, over breakfast, they debated some of the daily headlines, and it was clear that Issacharoff ’s rhetoric on the subject is a shade to the left of Raz’s. He was once a staff writer at the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, although he’s neither as analytical nor as ideological as some of his old colleagues there. Raz and Issacharoff both said that Israel made a mistake when it agreed to a huge prisoner release in order to gain the freedom of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held captive by Hamas for five years. A familiar strain of fatalism joins Raz and Issacharoff, too.

• Raz, in particular, recites the litany of political resignation that is so common now: “We have no one to talk to”; “When we pulled out of Gaza, they started firing missiles.” Issacharoff, who is forty-four, is better versed in Palestinian politics and the history of the conflict. First at Haaretz, and now at the Times of Israel and the Web site Walla! News, he has covered the occupied territories for many years. Like Raz, he comes from a Mizrahi family, and he is proficient in Arabic. He is gleamingly bald and wears an earring. After finishing his military service and his university studies, he worked for a while as a bouncer at a bar in Jerusalem and then as an apprentice radio reporter. He has a wire-service reporter’s metabolism, and a relish for action and highprofile scoops. While living in Jerusalem, he covered the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada. At the time, there was no wall, no separation fence; the commute to Ramallah was fifteen minutes and he spent many hours there talking with Palestinian officials, activists, and terrorists. “I owe my career to Yasir Arafat and Marwan Barghouti,” he told me, referring to the two Palestinian THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


leaders. Covering the intifada, he said, “was fabulous, it was crazy, so unexpected, so full of adventure.” The violence lasted from 2000 to 2005; around a thousand Israelis and more than three thousand Palestinians were killed. (With Amos Harel, the longtime military reporter for Haaretz, Issacharoff has written books on the second intifada and on the war with Hezbollah, in 2006.) Issacharoff ’s biggest scoop for Haaretz came in 2010, when he published a long report on Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the leader of Hamas in the West Bank. Known to the Shin Bet as the Green Prince, a reference to the color of the Hamas flag, Mosab Yousef was an Israeli intelligence asset for a decade beginning in 1996, feeding the Shin Bet information that is said to have prevented many suicidebombing attacks and led to the arrests of his father and Barghouti, who was a founder of Fatah’s Tanzim militia and has been in an Israeli jail since 2002. One of Yousef ’s handlers in the Shin Bet told Issacharoff, “So many people owe him their lives and don’t even know it. . . . People who did a lot less were awarded the Israel Security Prize. He certainly deserves it.” Yousef renounced Islam, and is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. He had nothing but praise for Issacharoff, telling me that he decided to talk with him because “Avi takes risks, a very im-

portant quality for a successful journalist.” He trusted him because he spoke decent Arabic and was deeply connected with Palestinian sources on all sides. The first contact he had from him, he said, was “when he called me to forward regards to me from my father, who was in an Israeli prison at that time.” What Issacharoff did not know, Yousef added, was that “I arranged for my father’s arrest to save his life.” Issacharoff met Raz when they were both young and hanging out in the same bars in Jerusalem. In an early episode of “Fauda,” one of the soldiers in the unit has a love affair with a bartender, who is later killed in a suicidebombing attack. The episode is dedicated to Iris Azulai, who was Raz’s girlfriend when he was in the Army. “She was my first love,” Raz said. “She was one of the most beautiful women in Jerusalem, an amazing person. I’d been so insecure. I couldn’t believe she’d date me. All my self-confidence in life came from her.” One October morning in 1990, in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, a young Palestinian, Amir Abu Sarhan, a resident of a village near Bethlehem, attacked Azulai, yelling “Allahu akbar! ” as he stabbed her to death with a fifteen-inch knife. She was eighteen. An off-duty police officer heard the screaming, drew his gun, and shot the Palestinian to wound him. He hit him in both legs. But, when the officer

“It’s an internship—crime doesn’t pay.”

came over to arrest him, Sarhan had the strength to pull another knife and stab him to death. “This was a Sunday morning, and I was in Ein Kerem Hospital getting my leg looked at for stress fractures,” Raz said. “I heard from someone there that there had been this attack. Iris’s brother called me and said she had been wounded. I just started to walk in a daze until my mother picked me up on the road.” Sarhan was imprisoned until 2011, when he was freed, along with more than a thousand other Palestinians, in exchange for Gilad Shalit. More than two hundred of the released prisoners were serving life sentences for terrorrelated crimes. Raz has heard that Sarhan now works for Hamas television in the Gaza Strip. While Raz and Issacharoff were working on the script for “Fauda,” the Green Prince wrote to say that his sister was marrying Amir Abu Sarhan. “I met Mosab at the première of ‘Fauda’ in Los Angeles,” Raz said. “We hugged, but I didn’t know what to say to him or him to me.” The intimacy, the proximity, of rivals and enemies is among the most striking aspects of the conflict. But it hasn’t prevented Israelis from registering a series of knife attacks or a confrontation around the holiest places of the Old City in Jerusalem, say, without ever dwelling on the larger source of tensions. “They put it out of their minds,” Issacharoff said. “They have a hard time waking up every morning knowing they have done something wrong, that they are responsible for this. It is also the result of the second intifada. The majority of Israelis lost hope in peace. The average Israeli says that the Palestinians are no partner for peace. The second intifada was a deep wound that you cannot heal. You think about it every time you go into a mall or a bus. There are still guards everywhere because of the suicide attacks. And the Palestinians work at forcing us to realize their presence. We left Gaza and they won’t let us leave it behind. The Israeli public just wants to bury the Palestinians beyond the wall, to be on defense and to live their lives on their own. But how long can that last? I don’t know. But I know that we are heading toward a catastrophe. Either we’re ending the Zionist dream—ending our status as a

Jewish democratic state—or we will become one state for two peoples. Sooner or later, the status quo will explode. It won’t hold. Either the Palestinians will explode or the international community will explode and say ‘No more apartheid’ and they will sit on our necks.” the meantime, the creators of “Fauda” IandnareIssacharoff enjoying their success. When Raz were interviewed by Dan

Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, at an AIPAC convention in Washington, D.C., they were cheered like rock stars on a triumphant tour. A second season is on the way and the people at Netflix hope for a third. In August, Raz and Issacharoff signed a deal with Netflix, which ordered a season of a show about a joint C.I.A.-Mossad operation and is developing a second, “Hit and Run,” about a man who loses his wife in a mysterious car accident that leads to a political-espionage story. Raz is taking one meeting after another in Hollywood, and Yes has received a stack of offers from abroad to remake “Fauda” in different languages and settings: in Afghanistan, on the front lines of the Mexican drug trade, in operations against an American white-pride group. Raz is counting on moving his family to Hollywood soon. The “Fauda” cast, too, is relishing its emergence from obscurity. Hisham Suleiman, who plays the lead terrorist in “Fauda,” has become a celebrity at home and beyond. He is an Arab resident of Nazareth Illit, a predominantly Jewish suburb of a predominantly Arab city in northern Israel. When I was in Tel Aviv, he visited the city market and the evening news showed footage of him being applauded, complimented, kissed. “It’s crazy,” he told me. “This happens wherever I go!” Suleiman avoids talking about the occupation. “Usually, when I speak about myself, I try to talk only about my artist’s life, not politics,” he told me. “Journalists are looking for a boom, a sensation. I am very careful. But I am a human being and I care about all of this. Why, after a hundred years, are we still killing each other here? This is a beautiful land and the conflict has to end. There has to be a real peace, a finish to the kiboosh. It’s a lovely country where

we can all find room to live together.” And yet, for all the series’ success, the question remains whether “Fauda” is really all that daring or consequential. Gadi Shamni, a retired general in the Israeli Defense Forces who was once in charge of Central Command in the West Bank, caused an uproar last year when he said in a speech that Israel had “elevated the occupation to the level of art.” This was a complicated argument: in part, he meant that the Israeli military and security apparatus had learned to keep casualties and abuse to a minimum. But he told me that a show like “Fauda” had its virtues because so many Israelis were intent on ignoring the moral reality of occupation. “There is a generation in Israel who never had any kind of positive interaction with Palestinians,” Shamni said. “They see them coming to work in Israel or on TV when there is a stabbing or a suicide bomber. For children at the age of twenty in Israel, most of what they know about Palestinians is what they see on TV. The first time they meet Palestinians is while they are serving in the I.D.F., if they serve in the West Bank, in Judea and Samaria. So ‘Fauda’ is another way to bring into the Israeli living room something about what is happening on the ground. Does it reflect a hundred per cent what is happening, or the complexity? Some. It’s a nice show. On the one hand, the professionalism is good, it minimizes the damage. On the other hand, is this the kind of expertise we want? We do it so well, with minimal friction and casualties, the soldiers are very well trained, they are not only professionally trained for combat but also mentally trained for occupation; they understand the complexity they are within. But you have assigned yourself issues that are not the core business of a military. In the end, it corrupts our moral values.” Diana Buttu, a lawyer who has worked as a legal adviser to the P.L.O., watched the series recently and told me that she found the experience disturbing. She did not share Shamni’s ambivalence, and when we spoke she made a compelling critique of “Fauda.” “In ‘Fauda,’ we do not see the occupation,” she said. “It is invisible, just as it is in the minds of Israelis. In fact, we never even hear the

word. We don’t see a single checkpoint, settlement, settlers, or home demolitions. We don’t see any homes being taken over, or land being expropriated or anything of the sort. We see a nice brick wall, not the ugly eight-metre-high one, as the only sign that we are in the West Bank. “Worse than all of this, assassinations—extrajudicial killings—appear normalized,” Buttu continued. “If you are not careful, you find yourself sympathizing with a group of assassins and thinking that their actions are fine, rather than illegal. You find yourself accepting that it is all right to hunt down Palestinians, killing a number of others in the process. For the writers, this is a fair fight—no occupation, just a game of who has better technology and more wits. And that, of course, is not the reality in which we live.” Raz and Issacharoff told me repeatedly that they had received lots of compliments, by text and e-mail, from Arabs in the West Bank, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf. But, unlike Yizhar’s novella “Khirbet Khizeh” and Ram Loevy’s television version, “Fauda” is ultimately content to entertain. “When my father first published, he was considered a hero,” Yizhar’s son, Zeev Smilansky, told me. “The feeling of self-confidence in Israel then was so strong that it could absorb criticism and the things he wrote about. His books were read. My father was a devout Zionist in love with the drama of the country that was being built, but he was honest about what was so deeply wrong and what was so visible. Now we are divided, and our ability to see things clearly is gone. Hardly any young people know my father’s name. His books are no longer a part of the curriculum. The only people that remember him are the old-timers.” Yizhar Smilansky died in 2006. The year before his death, he told an interviewer, “I looked out at the landscape. The landscape was a key part of my personality, so I saw the Arabs.” But Yizhar’s daughter-in-law Nitza Ben-Ari, a literary scholar, told me, “We no longer see them. If you asked me what the West Bank or Gaza looks like today, I wouldn’t know, and it’s next door, really.”  THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



RIOT GIRL The hot provocations of Jenji Kohan. BY EMILY NUSSBAUM

evon Shepard met Jenji Kohan, the creator of “Orange Is the New Black”and “Weeds,”twenty-four years ago, when they were writers for the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of BelAir.” Shepard, a former standup comedian, got into the business serendipitously, after he clowned on a square producer at a black barbershop in Los Angeles. Kohan, who had recently graduated from Columbia, was a rung down from Shepard—a “baby writer,” in Hollywood lingo. But “she was fun, a whole lot of energy, a sponge,” he said. Kohan wanted to learn dominoes—the “loud and outrageous” street version—and they began playing bones in an office they shared, trading stories about growing up black in South Central and Jewish in Beverly Hills. “I made the room cool,” Shepard said. “People were, like, ‘What’s going on in there?’ ” This was in 1993, a year after the L.A. riots, and at “Fresh Prince,” which starred Will Smith as a Philly street kid sent to live with rich relatives, the writers’ room was a toxic mess. The staff—which included Smith’s bodyguard and his cousin—kept crazy hours and fought non-stop. There were cruel pranks: someone peed in a colleague’s bottle of tequila. Kohan was one of two female writers, and the only white woman. Her nickname was White Devil Jew Bitch. Shepard was one of her few allies. After “Fresh Prince,” they lost touch. In the mid-nineties, he wrote for “MADtv,” and she wrote for “Tracey Takes On . . .”— wild, subversive sketch shows. Then, in 2004, Shepard’s agent handed him a script for a cable series about a pot-dealing single mother. One character, a black supplier named Conrad Shepard, echoed elements of Devon Shepard’s life story: Devon had dealt weed, even while working on “Fresh Prince.” He loved the script,


which had no writer’s name on it, and told his agent, “I gotta be on this show.” The agent asked him if he knew the creator: Jenji Kohan. Shepard said, “Do I fucking know her? If your white ass don’t put me in the room, I’m gonna choke the shit out of you.” Shepard wrote for “Weeds” for three years. Kohan was a dream boss, he said, because she was just as curious, energetic, and easily bored as she had been on “Fresh Prince.” “Jenji has A.D.D.,” he said. “It was like having a class clown as your boss.” The writers played hours of online poker, and to open things up Kohan issued weird challenges: “She would say, ‘I want you to end each scene with a curse word and then start with a curse word.’ Or ‘Have someone hold a cup, and then have a cup go through the whole episode.’ ” Shepard was used to being pigeonholed; at job interviews, he was told, “If we add a black character, we’ll call you.” Although, to his frustration, many people thought that he was responsible for the black dialogue on “Weeds,” he actually wrote more scenes for the white main character, who was played by Mary-Louise Parker. Kohan wrote for all the characters, including Conrad and Heylia, another AfricanAmerican supplier. In Shepard’s view, empathy and talent outweighed identity. Outsiders could sometimes take bigger risks, because they were less constrained by the burdens of representation. “The person inside the party is always going to have a different perspective than a person looking in the window,” he said. To break up the monotony, he and Kohan playacted an imaginary TV show called “Djembe,” about an African man who was married to a white suburban woman. The gag eventually made it into an episode.The premise was that Djembe couldn’t speak, and communicated by banging on a drum. “You would have

thought we were all fucking crazy and racist,” Shepard said, cracking up at the memory. “We were just so free.” Shepard, who is now an executive producer of “Legends of Chamberlain Heights,”on Comedy Central, was thrilled to witness Kohan’s breakout. He knew that she’d “gone through hell” for years after “Fresh Prince.” Shepard told me, “Here was Jenji’s problem. And I mean this in a good way. She’s a weirdo, and a nerd, and all these things. You can’t just put that kind of person in any fucking room. She had to be a showrunner! She had to be in charge. Anything else would put that fire out.” ohan has a story that she likes to tell K about Shepard. “I remember Devon coming into the writers’ room,” she said. “He yelled, ‘I can write a motherfucking “Frasier”! But they will never let me.’ That sticks with me so vividly.” We were in the back yard of the house that “Weeds” built, having drinks by a fire pit. Kohan and her husband, Christopher Noxon, bought the airy, sprawling estate, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, during the show’s fourth season, four years before she created “Orange Is the New Black” for Netflix, establishing herself as a rarity: a two-hit auteur. “Weeds” was Kohan’s payoff after a dozen years of frustration, but it began as one of many scattershot pitches—desperate attempts to jump from network to cable, to “trade money for freedom,” as she saw it. Her pitch was only four words: “suburban widowed pot-dealing mom.” But the series lasted eight seasons, garnering twenty Emmy nominations and two wins. As “Weeds” was ending, “Orange Is the New Black,” an adaptation of a memoir by a Smith-educated Wasp who went to prison, became Kohan’s off-ramp. The

Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” courts empathy and discomfort, titillation and sobs, often in the same scene. 38





two shows share a sensibility. As Kohan put it, “I’m fascinated by people interacting with the Other—forced to interact with people they’d never have to deal with in their day-to-day lives.” Her specialty is exploring “crossroads,” which are often found in underground economies. “Attraction or repulsion, it’s great for drama,” she said. “It’s something that interests me in my life. I want to meet all sorts of people, not to live in my bubble. And, right now, the world is just ‘Everyone back to their corners.’ ” In the Trump era, Kohan sees an urge to hunker down with one’s own, “to just put your loudspeaker up and say, ‘This is me, and this is my world view, and I don’t want to know from yours.’ ” Kohan and Noxon, a freelance writer who is also what the couple calls the “domestic first responder,” bought the house from a family who’d been wiped out by Bernie Madoff ’s Ponzi scheme. The place spills over with Kohan’s finds from thrift shops—she described her scavenging habit, which she developed in her teens, as “a treasure hunt, urban archeology.” She owns Berrie figurines, trivets, vintage spectacles, polyurethane grapes (“my vineyard”). The house, with its screening room and its back-yard “art barn,” has something in common with Kohan’s shows, emphasizing zestful world-creation over beige tidiness. It’s also the warm family space that she longed for. Marriage wasn’t a goal, but she always knew that she wanted kids. On the kitchen wall, there were Post-its with scrawled quotes from the kids: “Sukkot Bien!”; “Don’t get sucked into Bubbie’s nonsense.” Her son Oscar, who is twelve, lay sprawled on a sofa, watching “The Office.” His seventeenyear-old brother, Charlie, was heading to Columbia in the fall; his fifteen-yearold sister, Eliza, was in Manhattan with Noxon for the summer, doing an internship at a theatre. Kohan would join them soon, and begin shooting Season 6 of “Orange,” in Queens. Kohan, who is forty-eight, grew up five miles from the Los Feliz house, on a street just inside the zoning boundary for Beverly Hills schools. Her father is Buz Kohan, who was known (at least inside their family) as the King of Variety. A TV writer from the Bronx, he moved 40


to L.A. to write for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and came to occupy a Hollywood niche, working on such specials as “Gene Kelly: An American in Pasadena” and “Night of 100 Stars.” Her mother, Rhea, published two dark comic novels around 1980. Jenji’s twin brothers, Jono and David, are five years older. Although Jenji entered the industry first, David had the first hit: in 1998, he created “Will & Grace,” with his writing partner Max Mutchnick. According to Kohan, whenever she has a speaking event her mother always asks the same question: “How much of your success do you attribute to genetics?” When I visited Kohan, she had bright-pink hair that was fluffed out like a dandelion. She wore cat-eye glasses coated in glitter; her dress was navy blue and covered with tiny white swans. She’s a warm conversationalist but also a moody one, suspicious of cant, with an almost selfdestructive refusal to defer to the diplomatically empty idioms of the mediatrained television executive—she’d rather tell a story that makes her look bad, if it’s true or funny. She’s somehow cocky and humble at once. When people praise her neon-funky style, her reflex is to quote her mother, who told her, “If you can’t fix it, decorate it.” With little rancor, Kohan explained that her mother was sexist: she liked boys better, told Kohan that women were inherently less funny, and delivered lines like “I’ll buy you those expensive jeans when you’re thinner.” When Kohan was a teen-ager, Rhea dragged her to several plastic surgeons, but Kohan refused to undergo any procedures. Rhea once offered her uppers from a shoebox. When Kohan asked her how old they were, she snapped, “They’re pills, not cheese!” (Rhea denies this.) Kohan’s childhood had gilded streaks: Gene Kelly appears in her bat-mitzvah photographs. After she argued to a teacher that a Michael Jackson lyric could be read various ways, her father helped her get a supportive affidavit from the pop star, whom he’d met while working on a Jackson 5 special. In Kohan’s telling, she was an eccentric, perpetually unsatisfied child who became furious whenever anyone tried to shut down her right

to free speech—she felt patronized by adults. She described her brothers as wild boys, “dirty and open,” who enjoyed corrupting their kid sister. The twins turned their mom’s “Hawaiian modern” home into the neighborhood party house. “They’d show Super 8 pornos on the wall,” Kohan said. “They had a band, Midnight Fantasy, and their bassist had pot.” One day, an arms dealer who lived down the street threatened to kill the bass player, who, he said, had gotten his son into drugs. Rhea told the bass player to flush his stash. At family dinners, Jenji was silent, lest she get knocked down in the brutal style of a writers’ room: David told me that whenever Jenji ventured a joke he’d shoot back, “Is that an example of fifth-grade humor?” Despite Kohan’s upbringing, show business wasn’t a given. She applied for a job in a writers’ room mainly because a boyfriend told her that she couldn’t get one. “He said I had more of a chance of getting into Congress than I did of writing for TV!” she said. What followed was a dozen years of stunted ambition and Hollywood sexism. She had her “tit grabbed”; her name was taken off a script. Once, when she was pregnant and about to have a job interview, her agent advised her to wear a big shirt and eat candy, so that the showrunner would think she was just fat. After a pitch meeting for “The Larry Sanders Show,” her agent told her that the show’s star, Garry Shandling, wasn’t comfortable working with women. “I was fired from everything,” Kohan said. One boss let her go with “some horrible sports analogy,” like “ ‘You bring in the home run, but we need a team player every day.’ ” In 2003, CBS picked up her pilot “The Stones,” a sitcom about divorced parents, but studio executives didn’t trust her, she said, so they put David and his partner in charge. The show lasted six episodes and wrecked the siblings’ relationship for years. Kohan did end up writing for an astonishing array of network hits, among them “Friends,” “Mad About You,” and “Gilmore Girls,” along with HBO’s “Sex and the City” and a few not-great sitcoms where she had good bosses, such as Peter Tolan, who was “an asshole to the right people.” But throughout it all, desperate to oversee her own show and control her hours, she wrote more than fifteen pilots. She married Noxon in 1997

and gave birth to Charlie two years later, and even female-run sets, she found, were often unfriendly to parents. She wanted a career like that of her role model, the British comedian Tracey Ullman, a dazzling talent who headed a healthy room, and who was “funny and smart and civilized” but also “a good mom with a fun marriage.” Finally, in 2004, Showtime bought “Weeds.” But even that was a fight. “Weeds” was a dirty, strange comedy about a young widow, Nancy Botwin, who becomes a drug dealer in Agrestic, a fictional California suburb. In the aftermath of “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” Kohan forged an antiheroine in a feminine shape: Nancy was a shoe-craving, manipulative milf, whose race and class lent her entrée to sub-rosa worlds. “Weeds” was kinky on multiple levels, freely merging comedy and drama; it also had a racial baldness that rubbed some viewers the wrong way. Several of the characters were inspired by friends Kohan had made while playing dominoes on the Venice boardwalk, in the years after “Fresh Prince”: a cadre of older black and Latino men, including former basketball players and drug dealers. During the O.J. trial, Kohan told me, the guys on the boardwalk “would be, like, ‘Motherfucker is guilty’—and then the police would walk by and they would be, ‘No justice, no peace!’ ” Her bosses didn’t really get “Weeds”: Lionsgate came on board to produce the show after Showtime bought the concept, and the executives, especially Bob Greenblatt, were uncomfortable with its twisted morality. Greenblatt sent Kohan endless script notes. “I’d write back, note by note, for pages,” she said. “Finally, he wrote back a short e-mail that just said, ‘Fine, do what you want.’ . . . And I took it as carte blanche.” There was another problem, one she learned to work around, mostly by using a “talent whisperer” who still works for her: for much of the show’s run, she was barely on speaking terms with its star, Mary-Louise Parker. Once, Parker threw a script at Kohan, shouting, “My mother can’t watch this!” Kohan shot back, “I don’t write it for your mother.” (Parker could not be reached for comment.) Despite such tensions, “Weeds” was a hit, and although it never got the acclaim that some prestige-cable bigs did,

it had its own sticky allure, a rude verve and a destabilizing female protagonist long before “Girls” or “Scandal,” and a portrait of drug dealing before “Breaking Bad.” In the final seasons, the plot took risks that it couldn’t sustain; Kohan began hunting for a fresh project—and when she optioned “Orange Is the New Black” it developed so fast that the two shows overlapped. “I always love the new baby,” she told me regretfully. “Orange,” which Netflix released in 2013, was based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who went to prison, in Connecticut, for crimes that she committed with her ex-girlfriend, a heroin smuggler. The book was muted, with unintrusive portraits of Piper’s fellow-inmates. Kohan saw an opportunity for bawdier, more bravura storytelling, with women of every background, sexual identity, and ethnicity shoved into close proximity. Like Nancy Botwin, Piper was a rich white female criminal. But what was revelatory was the world around her: dozens of brown and black faces, fat inmates and butch dykes, old women with wrinkles and paunches—a cast of female unknowns who on other shows would be no more than extras. In Kohan’s universe, they would get to be loud, to be funny, to get naked, to have sex without being beautiful, and to be at the story’s center. The trans actress Laverne Cox played the trans inmate Sophia Burset, a year before Jill Soloway created “Transparent.” “Orange” shared with “Weeds” a volatile blend of comedy and drama—a dilemma for the Emmys, which, from year

to year, gave “Orange” nominations in different categories. A series that released entire seasons at once, it was included in Netflix’s début launch of original content, back when streaming was an experimental model. Because the show was comedic, female, and sex-centered, critics found it easy to patronize: the Times snootily compared it to “Gossip Girl.” But, like “The Wire,” “Orange” was a game changer, courting empathy and discomfort, titillation and sobs, often in the same scene. It was a soapbox for policy debates—about prison privatization, solitary confinement, mental illness— but it was allergic to pedantry. The emphasis was on the individual; extended flashbacks, in the manner of “Lost,” provided psychological context for both inmates and guards. The theme, in Kohan’s words, was: “You are not your crime.” At the fire pit, Kohan said that she was thinking of quitting TV. She might let her hair go gray; she wanted to travel; working on such painful material was depressing. (“Why didn’t I write this Hawaii show?” she moaned the next day, in her office. “I’ve not been smart personally about taking this shit on.”) She’d recently had a setback: HBO had rejected a pilot that she’d co-written about witches, directed by Gus Van Sant, called “The Devil You Know,” which she had imagined as a kind of “Inglourious Basterds of Salem”—the coven would win. Worse, her kids were leaving home. Even Oscar, whom she called “my surprise ‘Weeds’ baby,” was turning twelve. “Showrunning is like a pie-eating contest, where the

“Hold on, some guy is trying to talk to me about soup.”


he people at the dealership said T that my key fob didn’t work because of a bad battery. They would change it for what I thought was a fantastic sum of money. I had recently bought a house. Then I’d totalled my old car and bought this car. I had spent the year numbly accumulating debt. I decided to skip the dealer and do it myself. The key fob didn’t appear to have a pop-off lid for a battery compartment. It looked as impenetrable as an iPhone. So I typed “change battery on Mazda 3 key fob” into the Google search bar, and many how-to YouTube videos appeared. I clicked on one that had a thumbnail shot of a key fob like mine, with two hands holding it. It was a short video showing only a closeup of the hands holding the key fob over a table. On the table was a pair of tweezers, the tool that the hands used to pop the key fob open. A voiceover narrated the steps, but all the instruction came from seeing it done. I watched again. There was a trick to it, but it looked easy, simple, even fun. I bought the battery I needed. I went back to YouTube and couldn’t find the same video but found another, similar one. I watched another set of hands pop the key fob open, and then I paused the clip and did it myself, which was very exciting. I had to watch the reassembly twice to get it back together. But I did it, and the key worked. I had crowdsourced my problem; the Internet had offered a helping hand for free (except, of course, for the seconds spent watching the roll ad—seconds I endured by watching the countdown ticker 42


that told me when I could “skip ad”). I felt empowered, practical, and newly competent. I turned to YouTube more and more. With the aid of these videos, I thought maybe I could do basic things around my house without paying a handyman. I watched videos on how to fix a running toilet. How to test and repair my sump pump,

how to change a hood filter. I looked at the list of related videos that appeared on the right side of the screen when I watched a video. Many of the best videos came from D.I.Y. YouTube channels. Some had Web sites listed. I never went to the Web sites and rarely to the channels. I didn’t become enthralled with one helpful guy over another. But I made distinctions: I became impatient if there was theme music with a logo, or if the instructors did any playacting shtick at the start. I was not there for jokes or amusing personal stories. I didn’t want sympathy. I wanted unadorned expertise, utility. And I wanted authority. How does one gauge that? When I searched, I always selected

the videos with the most views first. The wisdom of the so-called hive mind would guide me (although it occurred to me that it was the high number of views, rather than the quality of the video advice itself, that eventually became the engine of more views). My desire to watch the videos metastasized. It was no longer about simply saving money or suddenly having to manage a house on my own. It became something more aspirational, the vastness of the possibilities hard to resist. There were so many things I didn’t know how to do, and so many things I should have learned by now. I was clearly a person in need of improvement. One morning, I searched “fold a fitted sheet,” which I did know how to do, more or less. But I thought maybe there was something I was missing, a better way. And it turned out that I wasn’t alone, which was oddly gratifying. There were pages and pages of videos on how to fold a fitted sheet. The top video had millions of views, and it was a classic, perfect D.I.Y. An older woman explained how to properly fold a fitted sheet into a neat packet so that it could be easily stacked in your linen closet: one hand in one corner pocket, the other in another pocket (like so!), then more enpocketing and folding, until you have an even, stackable packet. I followed along, but my packet never quite attained those neat corners. And now I was haunted by how it would be if I could only master the technique. Soon I was watching other videos for things I knew how to do but



thought I could be better at: clipping my cat’s claws, changing a duvet cover (“burrito” method), pruning plants, fixing a loose doorknob. I wanted all of it: the expertise at my fingertips, the never-ending skill upgrades. This how-to enchantment ended after another year of shuffled credit cards and unexpected expenses. My ten-year-old was in the back seat of our car, and when we pulled into the driveway she reported that her safety belt wouldn’t unclip. I looked back at her. She had it under her arm, rather than over her shoulder. As she struggled with it, she had twisted her body to face the seat, in an attempt to squirm out, but the belt kept tightening. I climbed in the back and unclicked the buckle, but she was still stuck. The mechanics of how the belt had got so twisted baffled me. I tried to loosen it at the top, but the mechanism just retracted more of the belt. The strap wasn’t on her neck, but it was uncomfortable, and she was beginning to panic. “Hold on, honey,” I said. “Hurry,” she said. “It hurts!” I stepped away from the car. I walked toward the house. What was I doing? I knew what would work, but I also had an impulse to find a better answer. I searched on my iPhone for “how to release a safety belt” and videos came up. I clicked on one, and then the ad came. “Hold on, honey.” As soon as the video allowed me, I scrolled past the introduction to the action. I could see that it involved bolts and an elaborate deconstruction that went well beyond a quick fix. It was not what I needed. My daughter struggled in the car. I knew what to do. I ran into the house and grabbed a pair of scissors. I walked to the car, cut the safety belt, and freed her. ♦

prize is more pie,” she told me, quoting a friend, and added that she and Shonda Rhimes have scheduled a lunch to discuss such feelings. (This was a month before Rhimes ordered a fresh batch of pies, cutting a major deal with Netflix.) Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” and a friend of Kohan’s, had recently texted her photos of Paris, where he was filming a new show, and it made her ache. “He has written himself into Paris, and I have written myself into prison,” she said. She emphasized that her suffering wasn’t remotely comparable to that of someone who is incarcerated. Nevertheless, she said, “my daily thoughts are of injustice and of horror, and I do have certain regrets about it.” Kohan’s fantasies of retirement, however, contradicted nearly everything else that she told me. “Orange Is the New Black,” which had an ambitious but flawed fifth season, was about to begin its sixth year of production—her first script was due, and she was contractually obligated for seven seasons. Meanwhile, she’d been pitching as madly as she had before “Weeds,” experimenting with godmothering projects for her writers. Her first such collaboration, “GLOW,” a playful Netflix show about female wrestlers, would début that week, on June 23rd. It was created by Carly Mensch, from “Weeds,” and Liz Flahive, from “Nurse Jackie,” but it was a very Kohan concept, with a neon-bright, polyglot female ensemble. Kohan was also co-writing a “Teen Jesus” pilot—a kind of “Wonder Years” about the Saviour—in collaboration with Mensch’s husband, Latif Nasser, a Canadian radio producer who is a secular Muslim. “I like that the Jew and the Muslim are writing the script,” she joked. She was trying to sell “American Princess,” a rom-comish pilot, by the actress and comedian Jamie Denbo, about a socialite who joins a Renaissance Faire. And Kohan was seeking a buyer for “Backyards,” about Latino punk teens, which had been conceived by Carolina Paiz, a writer on “Orange.” Kohan had other ideas, too, including a bilingual show about a family-owned Korean spa, and another about an L.A. family that goes globe-trotting. She couldn’t explain why she was both contemplating quitting and levelling up to the role of super-showrunner, in the tradition of Rhimes and Ryan Murphy.

But she could define what had driven her this far. “I finally found a word for it,” Kohan said. “Have you ever seen ‘Chef ’s Table’?” The show, on Netflix, had an episode about a woman, from a family of fish distributors, whose relatives told her that women couldn’t make sushi. “And she’s the foremost female sushi chef in the world!” Kohan exclaimed, grinning. “She said, ‘There’s a term in Japanese, kuyashii.’ And she said, ‘It means, “I’ll show you.” ’ ” few years ago, Kohan bought the A Hayworth Theatre, near Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a run-down revival theatre where she used to see movies with her mom. Rumor had it, she said, that the theatre had been owned by Rita Hayworth’s father, and when I told her that this sounded glamorous she reminded me of Hayworth’s story by cracking, “Well, he probably fingered her in every room in the place.” Three years ago, Linda Brettler, an architect who is married to Matthew Weiner, began renovations. The result is a spectacular set of offices, with one floor for production and two for postproduction. (There’s also a nursery, complete with toys and a changing table.) Kohan is thinking of turning the old auditorium into a venue for performances, like the L.A. institution Largo. The new neighborhood was an adjustment. “Someone shit in our doorway the first time we moved in,” Kohan told me. “They stole my mailbox. They stole the mezuzah! We just keep cleaning it up.” As for the mezuzah, she joked, “It’s puzzling. Maybe they thought, Oh, this is the Jews’ magic thing.” Next to Kohan’s office, with its loft bed and its framed African-American alphabet cards (“ ‘S’ is for Soul Sister”), is the “Orange” writers’ room. When I visited, the place looked like an artsy preschool crossed with a rehab center: there was a “comfort sweater” for anyone who felt vulnerable, plus a long table piled with markers, coloring books, and Kinetic Sand, along with such self-help books as “The Five Love Languages” and a memoir by the prison activist Susan Burton. Plot points for Season 6 were scribbled all over the walls. Kohan oversees each script, but her co-producer, Tara Herrmann, often runs the room. Although Kohan has never been given a diagnosis THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


“I’m the magic bean genie here to grant you three wishes! But they must be bean-related.”

• of A.D.D., she gets why Devon Shepard used that description. “I have a hard time focussing,” she told me. “That’s why the toys are there—so I have something to color.” Almost all the writers are new. Last season, Kohan and Herrmann acknowledge, went somewhat pear-shaped. Season 4 had ended on a heartbreaking note: a key character, the black lesbian Poussey Washington, a gentle iconoclast with prospects for a life after prison, was killed by an inexperienced white guard. A riot broke out. Season 5 traced the riot: thirteen episodes covered three tumultuous days, during which a set of African-American characters, led by Poussey’s friend Taystee (the wonderful Danielle Brooks), tried to negotiate for improvements in the prison. The season ended strong, and it made daring structural leaps—one of Kohan’s trademarks on “Weeds”—but it felt coarser, too, and more violent, with slack midseason pacing that led some viewers to stop watching. Kohan and Herrmann described the problem in similar terms. “We had lost a bunch of the original writers,” Herrmann said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just a new dynamic—people were attached to the characters as viewers, not 44


• as creators.” Kohan described some plots as “fan fiction.” She often spoke, with nostalgia, of the show’s “O.G. writers,” among them Nick Jones and Sian Heder, who now worked on “GLOW,” and Lauren Morelli, who had her own Netflix deal. After Season 5, only two writers were rehired. The new crew included sitcom veterans, a playwright, a refugee from the procedural “Bones,” and a novelist, Merritt Tierce, whom Kohan met at MacDowell, the artists’ retreat in New Hampshire. (Kohan meant to write fiction, and instead rewatched “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” a quirky, genre-blending cult series that was one of her formative influences.) Many of the writers had crazy interview stories: Kohan is infamous for asking inappropriate questions. Years ago, after reading a twisted writing sample from Morelli, Kohan asked her, “So, were you interfered with?” Morelli, unsure that she was hearing correctly, looked to Herrmann, who clarified: “She means ‘Were you molested?’ ” (Morelli wasn’t.) “I tend to be an id,” Kohan told me. Kohan, who is not on Twitter, received some scorn on the social network after a photograph of the Season 5 writers’ room, showing mostly white faces, was

posted. The new room was more than three-quarters female, and included a gay man, an Indian-Canadian woman, an African-American man, a Guatemalan woman, and an Asian-American female writer’s assistant. There were no straight white men. Kohan is resistant to all such accounting; she refuses to cheerlead for numerical diversity. Writing, she argues, is an occult skill, a gift of invention and empathy, which few people possess and which can be nurtured but not taught. It’s a perverse irony that “Orange,” which was initially hailed as a progressive breakthrough—a show that celebrated the stories of poor inmates, many of color—got caught up in a tense conversation about racial representation behind the camera. Ryan Murphy, the creator of such shows as “American Horror Story,” now promises viewers that women will direct half of a season’s episodes. There’s a swell of criticism directed at shows about black people that were created by white people—most recently, “Confederate,” an if-the-Southhad-won-the-Civil-War fantasy that HBO is developing. Kohan bristles at such debates. Speaking of TV hiring, she acknowledged that “there is a close circle in terms of getting access, if you’re outside of the clique.” She continued, “There should be an effort made. But, in the end, I just want talent.” She told me a Hollywood legend about Redd Foxx firing the white writers for “Sanford and Son,” and then, upon reading a new script, yelling, “Bring me my Jews! Bring me my Jews!” “If there’s one thing I believe, it’s against fundamentalism,” she told me. She doesn’t care if her characters are likable; she believes that the friction of offensiveness can push a debate forward. Kohan herself has a variety of impolite opinions. We debated whether the situation of Rachel Dolezal—the white activist who presented herself as black— might be analogous to transgender politics. At another point, Kohan argued that, if we are not our crimes, this is true for sex offenders, too, including Donuts, a guard on “Orange.” “Is he a rapist and that’s all he is?” she said. When asked about the notorious 2004 lawsuit that exposed crass behavior by the writers of “Friends,” Kohan said that there’s no point in suing a writers’ room: “You just

have to quit the job.” (Her argument was mainly pragmatic, she added. In Hollywood, writing a new pilot reinvents you.) Over lunch one day, the writers discussed Bill Cosby’s trial; Kohan was largely quiet, but eventually chimed in, “I wonder if people are having trouble now enjoying”—infinitesimal pause—“Jell-O pudding products.” She rolls her eyes at feminist talk of “the male gaze.” Although she and Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” have a long history, their artistic philosophies split at the root: it’s notable that Soloway’s company is called Topple, for “topple the patriarchy,” and Kohan’s is called Tilted. Three years ago, when Soloway was launching a “transaffirmative-action program” for her writers’ room, they sparred on a panel that I moderated; Kohan said that trans people had been interviewed by her staff, but insisted that a great writer can channel any identity. Years later, although Kohan’s values hadn’t budged, she had to admit that Soloway’s diversity effort had paid off, launching the trans writer Our Lady J, who was behind last year’s best episode of “Transparent.” Both showrunners are feminist provocateurs, but Kohan relishes being a mischiefmaker and, sometimes, a smutty ringmaster. She gleefully lobbies performers for more nudity. Once, she told me, she wanted a shy actor to do a full-frontal scene; her producer, who was reluctant to ask the man, convinced Kohan that the guy had a forked penis. Uncharacteristically for a modern cable impresario, Kohan has little interest in anything “cinematic,” barring occasional flourishes. (Each “Weeds” season finale echoed the style of a famous director: Tarantino, Hitchcock, Almodóvar.) In an era in which Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh make TV, Kohan told me, “This isn’t a director’s medium! It’s not auteur territory. I’m the auteur in television.” She’d come from sitcom rooms, not indie-movie sets, she said, and she wanted faces, and enough coverage to edit, not fancy tracking shots. Kohan has a deep, occasionally prickly aversion to even a hint of censorship, which goes back to her childhood. In fifth grade, she wrote a play in which an Asian character brought Sleeping Beauty a gift of egg foo yong. The white boy

playing the Asian role improvised slanty eyes, leading a Chinese-American teacher to cancel the play. “And I went crazy,” Kohan said. “Yes—it’s totally offensive! But he was also nine or ten. If you want to have a cultural-sensitivity discussion, great. But to say, ‘You’re bad, you offend me, this play cannot go on’—fuck you. Then I was supposed to write a letter of apology, and I refused.” Her mom backed her. Kohan described her attitude on these issues as old-school, “very A.C.L.U.” And yet “Orange” has itself reflected the shifting Zeitgeist on race and power, responding with humanity and nuance. In 2012, when “Orange” began production, prison reform was a bipartisan movement. By Season 4, Black Lives Matter had become prominent; Season 6 may make references to Trump’s ascent. Like “Weeds,” “Orange” has grown bleaker each year; the show has developed a caustic clarity about systemic racism, prison privatization, and the sadism of guards. (Piper Kerman complained, Kohan told me, that the show’s guards were unrealistically kind.) “Orange” was not one privileged prisoner’s story, Kohan said, and that had never been the aim: “I like an ensemble. It’s gluttony—I like a little piece of this, a little piece of that.” The show’s broad sympathies, its willingness to explore every perspective, have alienated some viewers: some were unwilling to get inside the head of Healy, the bigoted white male counsellor; others, especially

some African-American female viewers, saw Poussey’s death as trauma porn. Kohan was rankled by some of these critiques, but she’s willing to poke bruises: “Good, go and argue about it.” As Piper receded into the ensemble of “Orange,” another character, Taystee, took center stage. A bubbly jokester in the first season, Taystee eventually became the acting secretary for the warden, Joe Caputo. Poussey’s death radicalized her, however; suddenly, she could

see how her white boss’s “niceness” had blinded her—in a crisis, his sympathy went to the man who killed her friend. Kohan told me that these shifts simply followed the story. “This is going to sound woo, but I’m from L.A.,” she said. “Things have a destiny, and you want to see them fulfill their destiny. We don’t go in saying, ‘How are we going to deal with the black characters?’ We say, ‘What are we going to do with Taystee or Janae?’ ” Kohan was intent on dramatizing how power worked, but she was also resolute about character being key: “Otherwise, it’s an issues class. It’s an entertainment, and you have to be mindful of that.” While I was visiting Kohan’s office, she met with executives from Amazon. Lifetime had delayed in picking up “American Princess,” the Renaissance Faire show, and Kohan wanted to shop it elsewhere. Netflix, Amazon, Facebook—she’s open to all comers. As they discussed “Princess” and Kohan talked up her many protégées, Tara Herrmann, the “Orange” co-producer, noted that Kohan gets bored in the later seasons of her shows. “I like giving birth,” Kohan said, shrugging. “Literally and figuratively,” Herrmann said. Kohan pitched her idea of a show about a Korean spa, which she hoped to write with a Korean partner. It would touch on themes of immigration, she said—not just the Korean family who owns the place but the Latino employees who clean it. “A lot of nudity,” Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of comedy, drama, and V.R., remarked. Yes, Kohan said. She described visiting a Korean spa in Queens that was very “accepting,” with people “every color under the sun” in hot tubs on the roof. One time, she’d seen “Orthodox boys from Monsey,” in upstate New York, ogling women in bikinis. Lewis emphasized that Amazon, as a global company, was seeking diverse, experimental voices and was eager to acquire shows set in other countries. Earlier in the meeting, Kohan had mentioned her concept about a family that travels around the world. Lewis looped back to it.“The travel thing—if you wanted to do it, we would do it today,” he said. “Really?” Kohan said. “I have all the THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



a lot of movies. And the movIandwatch ies I like I watch again and again again. Big screen and then Bluray and then chance encounters late at night while channel flipping. The repeated viewings can lead to a molecular shift in the narrative, in the settings and characters. I start assigning motivations that were blurred or forgotten before the opening credits. What is going through Morris Day’s mind, near the end of “Purple Rain,” when he’s suddenly alone in the backstage hallway—when, out of nowhere, he loses his swagger and looks cosmically sad and self-loathing? Or I imagine destinies and horizons that don’t happen until after the final credits roll. Where do Birdy and Al go after their rooftop escape? Or Ben and Elaine, when their bus reaches the end of the line? What is Jesus’s day job in “The Big Lebowski”? I’ve imagined a whole film just about the waitress who describes the chorizo and eggs in “Midnight Run.” There are many people like me, narrative deep-divers who can’t stop imagining the side alleys and possible spinoffs of our favorite movies. But, no matter what we imagine, we’re stuck with the scenes and the dialogue that the director and the editor have allowed us. On YouTube, viewable on my laptop when I should be writing or answering e-mails, there’s another spike for my cinema-addict veins: the work of the Trailer Recutters. These are would-be film editors and directors who make new trailers for classic movies. Modern (or archaic) music choices, quicker (or slower) cutting, iconic scenes and images scrambled out of sequence. I’m not talking about the Recontextualizers, those prankish scamps who will create a trailer for “The Shining” as if it were a light comedy or for “West 46


Side Story” as if it were a pandemic thriller. Those are delightful, but they serve a setup and a punch line outside the meaning of the film. The Trailer Recutters, on the other hand, have discovered cinematic transcendence through sheer practicality and commerce. These people are very clear about their aim of finding work in the industry—the videos they make are calling cards, audition reels. But in this prosaic pursuit they sometimes

kick loose aesthetic revelation. The film whose guts they’re rearranging yields a sleeker, differently breathing animal. As an example, take yourself over to YouTube to watch the attempt made by an ambitious young editor named Adam Eyster at a “modernized” trailer for Tobe Hooper’s 1974 gorefest “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Keep in mind, the original trailer is a near-perfect bit of hilariously sombre drive-in sleaze. It does the job as effectively as the film itself does—it’s all grimy interiors, grainy lighting, and visual assault. Eyster keeps the grime but highlights something that also exists in the film—and, upon repeated viewings, makes Hooper’s spit-roasted terror tale even more disturbing. And that’s the film’s poetry.

And before I go on—no, Eyster doesn’t cut his “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” trailer to make the movie look like a gentle Sundance darling. The awfulness is still sizzling and bright on the skillet surface. The bone furniture. The meat hook. The freezer. The razor attack in the van. Headcheese and a carving knife on cheap crockery. In Eyster’s arrangement, we see these things as Timber Timbre’s dreamy, ominous ballad “Run from Me” plays over them: “Run from me, darlin’, run my good wife, run from me, darlin’, you better run for your life.” We also see Teri McMinn’s graceful walk to the (slaughter) house under a gorgeous Texas sky. Marilyn Burns’s sea-green jewel eyes in the middle of her sweatstriped, panicky face. Leatherface’s Busby Berserkely chainsaw swipe at the film’s climax. Painterly long shots of heat-hammered highways and horror houses. These isolated moments, though forever affixed into the larger machinery of the movie, stay with me, burn into me hotter than the movie itself. Every memorable movie has such moments. A glance, or a lunge, or a slow pullback from tragedy or hilarity that is its own self-contained mini-story. The instant in “Lawrence of Arabia” when the film cuts from Peter O’Toole holding a burning match to the sere silence of the desert is as grand a tale, in its way, as the entirety of David Lean’s epic. In movie theatres, I sit in the dark and let worlds wash over me. Back in the light, I’m pulled toward screens inside of screens. I watch movies I’ve already absorbed get disintegrated and reassembled. I watch the innards and sinews of the celluloid beast yanked and twisted into something small and even more ferocious. These movies will always, in new and glorious forms, run for me. 



characters, and I have a beginning, and I have a secret that we’re not telling the audience.” “The answer is yes,” Lewis said. “All right, I gotta get out of the ‘Orange’ swamp,” she said. Negotiations were soon in progress— it was a show for her to do a few years from now, another off-ramp. Retirement would have to wait. he next day, June 22nd, Kohan went T to the doctor, to get beta-blockers for the première of “GLOW.” Later, as we entered an unfancy nail salon, she said, “I have trouble taking care of myself.” But by the time of the screening she had gone glam: her nails were a color called Hologram, and she strutted the pink carpet in a blousy peasant dress in rainbow colors. After the show, Kohan, accompanied by Charlie and Oscar, headed to the première party. It was an especially exciting night for Oscar, who has a cameo in the pilot, as a tween thug who screams, “Fuck you, Nancy Reagan!” It was also the first time that Kohan’s sons had attended one of her professional events— normally, her wingman was her daughter, Eliza. At dinner the previous night, Charlie had told me that he didn’t love “Orange”—in fact, he’d dropped it midway through Season 2. “I had a problem with Piper—I didn’t like her,” he said. “And there was this way that every time it got dramatic it would go the other way. I thought it sold itself out.” “You’re one of those,” his mother told him fondly. She complains that when men tell her that they like the show they inevitably add, “I watch it with my girlfriend.” Eliza was the family’s “Orange” superfan. Before the screening, Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive gave a speech thanking “Mama Jenji.” Mensch was postpartum, just as Kohan had been for the “Weeds” première. Afterward, Charlie was sweet to his mom, knowing that it had been hard for her to cede control, to be the one giving notes that got ignored. “I could see your touch on it,” he said. The “GLOW” party was decorated like a neon locker room from the eighties. “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” played on the loudspeakers. As Kohan mingled, I chatted with two of her O.G. “Orange” crew, the filmmaker Sian Heder and the playwright Nick Jones. They marvelled

at their early, disorienting days under Kohan: she had everyone build ornate Lego models of prisons and go on extended hikes. Even after they broke the story for Season 1, they struggled. “One script would be like ‘30 Rock,’ another like ‘The Shield,’ ” Heder said. Heder felt especially anxious about writing a script that centered on Sophia Burset, the trans inmate. Every activist she called told her that it was a huge mistake to portray a trans character as a prisoner—at the very least, she should be innocent. Kohan encouraged Heder to stop soliciting outside opinions: she needed to write. “Sian certainly voiced those concerns,” Kohan told me later. “They all did. Her name was going to be on it, and trans was becoming a hot-button thing. But you can’t be a totem and a person at the same time. I just kept saying, ‘This is the character, this is the person. This is this trans person.’ The message is: You gotta be fearless. If you get too wishy-washy and try to serve too many masters, you get nothing. You write in a vacuum and you hope it works.” buys people’s complete collec“ S he tions of things!” Eliza complained

to me. She was sitting on a space-age chair in the family’s new apartment, in the West Village. “We have a room filled with a collection of Eight Balls—” “Those Eight Balls were collected over time,” Kohan said. “All those marbles. You did not collect those marbles.” “I bought jars of marbles from all different places,” Kohan said, calmly. “That’s why they’re in all different jars. It’s a collection of jars of marbles. It’s not a collection of marbles.” She is a maximalist, she said: “Look, I feel better when there’s bulk. I think bulk is beautiful. I love a lot of something.” Kohan adores Los Angeles, which she has gotten to know using the twin algorithms of “thrifting and food”: she and her husband sometimes drive their pit-bull mutt, Gail Feldman, to a neighborhood they’ve never visited, then explore it on foot. Right now, however, Noxon was hot for Manhattan. He and Eliza had been in the half-decorated apartment since late May, among trippy velvet sofas and coasters bearing the message “Don’t Fuck Up the Table.” Kohan, as usual, was overwhelmed by work, and

shuttling between coasts: she was on deadline for her “Orange” script; she was scouting locations; she was preparing to help Mensch and Flahive get going on the room for Season 2 of “GLOW.” Kohan and Noxon, who met at an adult kickball game, have been married for nearly twenty years. Noxon has published two books. The first was “Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up.” His second, “Plus One,” was more fraught: it was a beach read about a cable showrunner’s husband, who, feeling emasculated, acts out. Kohan wasn’t thrilled, but Noxon argued that it was his story, too. The impulse might be understandable, given the cannibalistic nature of their circle’s creativity: in addition to Weiner, they are close with Chris’s sister Marti Noxon, a TV writer whose show “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” has a character loosely based on Chris. But, whatever stress “Plus One” generated, the family is affectionate and eccentric, with shared comic rhythms and a self-conscious fascination with the awkwardness, the flawed wokeness, of their own L.A. set. Eliza launched into a story about a seminar on racist language at her school, which began with a PowerPoint slide that read “White People: We’re Not Always Awesome.” Her school was also fighting a trend called “area codes”: boys rate girls with three digits, for their face, body, and “DTF”-ness (politely: sexual eagerness). At a school assembly, Eliza said, a girl had declared that it was wrong to rate girls, that rating girls must stop, “and someone in the crowd said, ‘Shut up, 7!’ ” The family exploded with laughter. “That’s the perfect number,” Kohan marvelled. “I recognize that it’s reductive and sexist,” Chris added. “But on a scientific level I admire its specificity.” Similar stories have been worked into Kohan’s art. In a potent “Orange” flashback, Janae, back when she was a publicschool student, tears up as she watches an all-white “Dreamgirls” at an élite private school—a plot inspired by a mostly white production of “The Wiz” at Eliza’s summer camp. But Trump’s election victory has made issues of race and privilege far less abstract; it was a traumatic event for all of them. Just after November, Noxon was in Memphis promoting “Plus One,” the prospect of which—as THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


he scribbled in a sketchbook—felt “stupid” and “inconsequential.” Noxon is also an illustrator, and in a burst of energy he produced a graphic story presenting the civil-rights movement as an inspiration for the resistance. He posted it online, and it went viral. Soon, he had a new book to write, titled “Good Trouble.” He was just back from being arrested at a health-care protest in Washington, D.C. Noxon is a Democrat, but Kohan is a registered Independent. “I’m not a Republican,” she said. “But I think the Democratic Party is a mess, in a lot of ways. And I don’t necessarily like an affiliation.” For all her aversion to being preachy, she calls her work a form of activism. “I think my ideology isn’t that fuzzy, in the things that are approached on the show—and, while I don’t have time to be an activist, I can be an agitator.” She recalled attending a Clinton Foundation meeting in which a speaker described studies showing that babies whose mothers talk to them a lot develop stronger language skills—and then told her, “You could put this in your show.” That idea was translated into Kohan’s idiom in Season 2: a prisoner whose daughter has recently given birth crudely tells her, “Talk to the baby, so she doesn’t grow up stupid.” atthew Weiner met Kohan more M than a decade ago at the school their children attend. They became

close friends, and play pinochle together with their spouses. Kohan talks Weiner off cliffs of self-doubt. “Don’t worry about running out of story,” she once told him. “There’s always more.” Kohan’s decision to burn down Agrestic, in Season 3 of “Weeds,” became Weiner’s watchword for artistic daring while writing “Mad Men”: it gave him the confidence to divorce Betty and Don, to start fresh without fear. Weiner told me that Kohan rarely gets enough credit as a pioneer. “She’s braver than I am,” he said. “She’s a truly iconoclastic person who does not believe in B.S. She’s a deep feminist, she’s a humanist, she’s very educated, but she’s really—and so quietly, without putting her personality in front of her work—she has consistently talked about what’s fair, about race, before anybody, about the trans world before anybody. About class, about privilege!” Her gift, 48


he said, was to write about difficult subjects without “jingoism,” with a rich sense of psychology. She was ten years ahead of everybody. He’s also inspired by her attitude toward criticism. During “Mad Men,” he recalled, he got frustrated by “people thinking I was a sexist when I was writing about sexism.” For Kohan, however, “the white guilt, all of it, it’s all funny to her—you know, it’s just delicious to her that people are going to be upset.” They share a philosophy: that it’s crucial not to give in to the impulse of wanting to please viewers, that it’s better to take the leap that might agitate people, if it can get you to a new place. In an e-mail, Shonda Rhimes praised Kohan’s kindness and candor, calling her one of the few showrunners with whom she can talk honestly about career strategy: “She’s the person I went to and said, ‘Tell me everything you know about Ted Sarandos’ ”—a top executive at Netflix. Rhimes had just launched “Grey’s Anatomy” when she met Kohan; she had been a “Weeds” fangirl, but when she heard about “Orange” she was “suspicious”: “It seemed to be a show about a rich white woman’s prison struggles, written by a white woman, when we know that white women are not the majority of people being victimized, forgotten, and destroyed by the prison system.” But, she went on, “the moment you watch the first episode, you know that the show is actually about women. All women . . . And there are stories told on that show from the perspectives of women of color—and trans women and lesbians—that I don’t think I’d ever seen before.” I visited the set of “Orange” in early August. Kohan had finally finished her script, and filming was under way. She had other good news: Lifetime had greenlighted “American Princess,” the Renaissance Faire show. The previous weekend, Kohan and Noxon and two of their kids had visited upstate New York with Jamie Denbo, the show’s creator, to scout for stories at a Renaissance Festival. “Did you see the ring that Chris bought me in Oswego?” Kohan said, holding out her hand. I peered: it resembled a melted bronze dragon. “It’s a couple giving each other oral sex. See? She’s leaning over his cock, he’s on her pussy.” Romantic, I told Kohan. “He knows me,” she said.

“Orange Is the New Black” is not “Entourage”; in Season 6, past actions have repercussions. Kohan, who calls herself a “cultural, book Jew,” takes a Talmud class, and she had been mulling over one of its themes: “How do two contradictory truths occupy the same space?” The actresses were returning from their hiatus, and they greeted Kohan effusively. Kate Mulgrew, who plays Red, the Russian cook, gave her a gift-wrapped copy of Roxane Gay’s “Hunger.” Adrienne Moore, who plays Black Cindy, talked about a recent trip to Berlin. When Mulgrew and I talked in her dressing room, the actress, best known as Captain Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager,” described the thrill, after a long career of “very, very little golden stuff,” of finding a creator so “unorthodox and unafraid.” Danielle Brooks, similarly, called Kohan a “dope queen.” Unlike Mulgrew, “Orange” was Brooks’s first TV job, straight out of Juilliard. In the premier episode, which begins with a shower scene, Taystee pulls off Piper’s towel, saying, “Damn, you’ve got nice titties—you’ve got them TV titties.” Brooks, who is from a Christian family in South Carolina, “prayed on it” and nearly declined the role. But she told me that she’s grown to trust Kohan, grateful for her “deep care for disenfranchised women.” Adrienne Moore, too, grew up in a Southern, Christian family, but eventually moved to New York to study acting. (Kohan told me that she clumsily assumed that several cast members were amateurs, as with “The Wire,” until they mentioned Juilliard: “O.K., you’re a really good actress and I’m a racist.”) In Season 3, Black Cindy converted to Judaism, in a scene that was a surprise tearjerker. Kohan wrote it as comic, but Moore played it emotionally, drawing on her own history. These kinds of dynamics have shaped the show throughout its run: after the Latina actresses spoke up, the writers gave their characters specific ethnicities—and the Dominicans became distinct from the Puerto Ricans and the Mexicans. (Some performers chose to play cross-nationality: Flaca is Mexican, but is played by a Dominican-American.) One point of contention hovered: Kohan thinks it’s realistic that black inmates would use the N-word, but the


The bird flying up at the windowpane aspired to the blue sky reflected in it but learned the hard truth and flew off again. Was it a finch, a blue tit or a linnet? I couldn’t quite identify the strain. Checking a pocket guide to get it right— “The Birds of Ireland,” illustrated text— I note the precise graphic work and definite descriptions there, and yet I’m still perplexed. I only glimpsed the bird in busy flight: bit like a goldfinch, like the captive one perched on a rail, by Rembrandt’s young disciple, except for the coloring, blue, yellow, and green. A tit so, one of those from the bird table which whirr at hanging nuts and grain. Off he flew. Now there’s a mist out there and a mist in here that wouldn’t interest him, since what he wants is sky and open air. He’s in the leaves; I’m trying one more time to find an opening in the stratosphere. —Derek Mahon cast resisted. Moore told me that it bothers her when the word is used as racial shorthand in pop culture. Kohan told me, “You can tell when things are just not worth it. I want them to do great work and have a good experience—and they are putting their bodies out there. There are certain lines where I’m, like, ‘Just fucking say it.’ And lines where I’m, like, ‘O.K.’ ” Kohan values rude humor to the point that she sometimes veers into the language of the right. An offensive joke, she told me, “is not going to melt you!” Cindy Holland, who green-lighted the show for Netflix, told me that, though Kohan is collaborative, she’d learned to “never give her a note on a joke, because she’ll double down.” When I expressed qualms about the jokes made by the show’s Nazi inmates, Kohan said, “I’m shocked by what comes out of people’s mouths outside a P.C. bubble. I want to represent it.” The inmates, she said, “are trying to be funny, and it’s not funny, and they think it’s hysterical—and that’s kind of a punch in the head. I like that they made you uncomfortable.” An un

settling scene should be “like a Weeble that doesn’t fall down, that just keeps tottering.” In one of Season 3’s best gags, a costcutting executive at the prison describes a “Jewish problem”—too many inmates ordering expensive kosher meals—then notes that he has found a cheaper source for soap. A colleague shoots back, “Is it the Jews?” But an even better punch line follows: the employee is reported to H.R. and fired. In the private-prison industry, exploiting inmates is business as usual, but breaking a speech code is a crime. Netflix airs in Germany. Although the streaming service cleared the bit with its lawyers, Kohan was strongly urged to cut it: in Berlin, Holocaust jokes are verboten. She kept it in. he last time I spoke to Kohan, she T was finally on vacation—though not a real vacation, since she was polishing new “Orange” scripts. She was in New England, staying at Shonda Rhimes’s country house. Kohan’s plate was heaped with pie. “GLOW” had got a second-season pickup, and she was prepping for “Amer-

ican Princess.” Carolina Paiz’s “Backyards,” however, had hit a snag: there was a competing show about Latino teens. Kohan wanted to be supportive, but it was hard. She knew that Paiz had “spilled her guts into this thing,” but added, “I’ve spent my life building bibles for things that get tossed out—it is brutal, but it teaches you to move on.” Mostly, however, she had been watching the Charlottesville riots. Two days earlier, Kohan had described her work to me as a cathartic rebellion within a quiet life. “It’s fun to create fireworks and see oohs and ahs,” she had said. Battle could be exhilarating, controversy was fun. Now she was rattled, finding both the Nazi marches and Trump’s response “terrifying, appalling.” She said, “I intellectually understand where these people come from—hate always comes from pain, to a certain extent. Doesn’t make it O.K.” When I asked for her response as a free-speech absolutist, she struggled. “Right,” she said. “I never want to say that people can’t say how they feel, including their hatred.” But this was about intimidation as well as speech. “It is a call to action for the complacent, to stop letting these fringe hatemongers have the floor,” she said with emotion. “I don’t think the answer is ‘You can’t say that’— but you’re not entitled to take over city streets and start shit.” On some of her most foundational issues, she felt at sea. “I think there’s a hard line here of ‘This is unacceptable.’ So that feels uncomfortable—that isn’t something that’s in my wheelhouse, that’s not part of my world view.” The green lights for new shows hadn’t entirely raised her spirits. “I’m a depressive, a dysthymic,” she said. “So I have to summon sunshine. I don’t come by it easily.” What she longed for was the time to wander, to observe, to collect and absorb, to “fill her tank.” She was relishing time with her kids. In her work, however, she described herself as drowning— going underwater, then up, under, then up, like a witch being dunked. We’d sat together at the Renaissance Festival, in the late afternoon, watching a dunking: torture turned into vaudeville, making tired families giggle and cheer. “I would like to find a little more pure joy!” she said, as if she were conjuring a path into the future, one she had yet to imagine. “I’m travelling in dark waters right now.”  THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



MR. AMERICA In a fractious era, Ken Burns’s documentaries, on PBS, attempt to bring every viewer in. BY IAN PARKER

ike Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, Ken Burns has a summer house on Lake Sunapee, in New Hampshire. The property is furnished with Shaker quilts and a motorboat; every July 4th, a fifteen-foot-long American flag hangs over the back deck. He bought the house in the mid-nineties, with money earned from “The Civil War,” his nine-part PBS documentary series, and its spinoffs. When PBS first broadcast that series, in a weeklong binge in the fall of 1990, the network reached its largest-ever audience. The country agreed to gather as if at a table covered with old family photographs, in a room into which someone had invited an indefatigable fiddle player. Johnny Carson praised the series in successive “Tonight Show” monologues; stores in Washington, D.C., reportedly sold out of blank videocassettes. To the satisfaction of many viewers, and the dismay of some historians, Burns seemed to have shaped American history into the form of a modern popular memoir: a tale of wounding and healing, shame and redemption. (The Civil War was “the traumatic event in our childhood,” as Burns later put it.) History became a quasi-therapeutic exercise in national unburdening and consensus building. Burns recently recalled, “People started showing up at the door, wanting to share their photographs of ancestors.” Burns is now sixty-four. He is friends with John Kerry and John McCain. He has been a character on “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” the animated children’s series—“What’s a documentary?” “Great question!”—and has been a guest at the Bohemian Grove, the off-the-record summer camp in Northern California for male members of the American establishment. Visitors to his office see a display of framed Burns-related cartoons,


most of which assume familiarity with his filmmaking choices: an authoritative narrator offset by more emotionally committed interviewees, seen in half-lit, vaguely domestic surroundings; slow panning shots across photographs of men with mustaches; and a willingness, unusual in the genre, to attempt compendiousness, to keep going. Last year, a headline in the Onion read “Ken Burns Completes Documentary About Fucking Liars Who Claimed They Watched Entire ‘Jazz’ Series.” Burns’s company, Florentine Films, is based in Walpole, New Hampshire, where Burns has lived since the late seventies. The company has thirty-four fulltime employees, and a schedule of documentaries that extends to 2030. When Paula Kerger, PBS’s president and C.E.O., recently introduced Burns at a public event in Los Angeles, she quoted a tweet that described him as “the Marvel Studios of PBS.” Burns’s future plans—of varying uncertainty—include a series about country music, to be broadcast in 2019, and multipart films about the Mayo Clinic, Muhammad Ali, Ernest Hemingway, the American Revolution, Lyndon B. Johnson, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, crime and punishment in America, and the AfricanAmerican experience from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Great Migration. Burns, who has not yet strayed from American subjects, and whose work tends to display a kind of wishful patriotism—a soaring appreciation of something that’s not quite there—explained Churchill’s place on the list by saying, “Thank God that he had an American mother.” At Lake Sunapee, which is an hour’s drive from Walpole, Burns likes to take a daily walk. A three-mile loop, on quiet streets, leads him up a hill, and then down

to Sunapee Harbor, which has the tidy calm—a bandstand, a little museum— of a place about to be turned to ash in a disaster movie. When I joined him one morning in July, he was wearing a T-shirt, decorated with palm trees, advertising a public radio station in Miami. He walked fast. He pointed out a house that he knew to be currently occupied by witches, and a small hotel that had the air of being “back in the forties or fifties, when there were no interstates.” The people of Sunapee either knew Burns as a neighbor or recognized him as a public figure. He is made conspicuous by an unusual mass of collar-length hair, which resembles the removable piece on the top of a Lego figure. (In 1975, Burns had long hair, and a hairdresser cut most of it off; he still uses that hairdresser, exclusively.) As we walked, Burns said hello to everyone. When he congratulated a man on the progress he was making in the construction of a house, the man explained his success by saying, “I’m old and alone.” When Burns bought the lake house, in 1994, he was recently divorced, and had two young daughters. One of them, Sarah, is now a writer and director of documentaries; she made “The Central Park Five,” in 2012, with her father and David McMahon, her husband. Lilly, her younger sister, is a showrunner on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series. Burns remarried in 2003, and with his second wife had two more daughters. This summer, when he came to the lake with the girls—now twelve and six— he had again recently divorced. Alongside more troubled thoughts, he was able to describe optimism: since the breakup, he said, his relationships with his younger children had “quadrupled in their intensity and love and intimacy.” His apparent openness and his buoyancy—for more than thirty years, he’s

“Documentaries are traditionally advocacy,” Burns said. He sees his films as acts of “emotional archeology” that aspire to be art. 50





had an audience for Dad jokes—are sometimes obscured by speechifying. His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous, and he told me that when people make uninvited suggestions about how he might change his working habits he imagines someone saying, “Mr. Cézanne, how about some watercolors?” As Peter Miller, a close friend since junior-high school, in Ann Arbor, recently noted, fondly, Burns is “not without ego.” He can be sharp, almost peevish, in response to criticism of his work. But he’s keen to appreciate jokes about his reputation. A few years ago, he appeared with the comedian Eugene Mirman in a short film promoting Hampshire College, their alma mater. (“Stop panning!” Mirman shouts at one point. “I’m being panned to death!”) Recalling this, Burns noted, “There’s always this surprise that I’m a good sport.” When we stopped by the general store, a man took a moment to connect the face and the career. He filibustered—“Ah, ah, ah . . . ”—before continuing, “I watch all of your documentaries. I can’t get enough of them.They should have more.”

Burns began to reply: “In September, we have—” The man interrupted, to give his name. “Nice to meet you,” Burns said. “I’m Ken Burns.” “I know,” the man said. “In September, we have ten parts— eighteen hours—on the history of the Vietnam War,” Burns said. “Nice,” the man said. Later, we talked on Burns’s deck, and looked out over the lake. He listed, in descending order, the films that members of the public most press him to make: “Railroads, labor, immigration. And then: ‘My great-great-grandfather wrote four volumes about the Civil War. He didn’t go, but . . . ’ ” He laughed. He later said, “After ‘The Vietnam War,’ I’ll have to lie low. A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes.” Burns’s girls, who were playing with a babysitter, occasionally came onto the deck to ask for help with Band-Aids, or with ideas for Charades. One time when Willa, his six-year-old, emerged, Burns found it easy to persuade her to recite a list of U.S. Presidents. She hesitated only once or twice. “You always put Ulysses Grant too early,” her father said, gently. A motorboat, flying a Trump flag, stopped not far offshore. “I don’t think they’re going to fish,” Burns said, and he

“I miss when we were free, and I could eat you.”

made a remark about the Texas School Book Depository. He wasn’t sure if the people on the boat were trying to rile political opponents. “I don’t know what they can provoke,” he said. “They have all the guns. We can’t do anything.” eneral Merrill McPeak flew two G hundred and sixty-nine combat missions in Vietnam. He became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and retired from the military in 1994. He is tall and lean, and has a quiet, deadpan swagger. (He makes remarks like “The trouble flying with me is that you don’t know you’ve landed.”) In 2012, he agreed to be interviewed by Lynn Novick, Burns’s codirector on “The Vietnam War”; later, McPeak became a consultant on the series, with particular responsibility for technical detail. He was asked, for example, to approve the engine sounds that Burns’s colleagues added to silent film of military aircraft. It’s an oddity of the Burns technique that many of his most conspicuous interviewees—including the novelist and historian Shelby Foote, in “The Civil War,” and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz”—also have an editorial role. They become part of a group of paid historical experts, perhaps two dozen strong, who, during production, meet with the filmmakers, in New York and Walpole, to discuss script drafts and view early edits. Novick has worked at Florentine Films since 1989. She recalled the first consultants’ meeting for “Jazz,” in the mid-nineties. A question was asked: Would it be better to describe the roots of jazz as African or American? Two participants, disagreeing, “almost came to blows,” she said, adding, “One got up and left and never came back.” A few weeks ago, General McPeak met with Burns and Novick in a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills. They were scheduled to appear together at an evening preview of “The Vietnam War,” and at a subsequent panel discussion. The series, which took ten years to make, and cost about thirty million dollars, was largely finished a year ago; by this summer, Burns had already spoken at more than a dozen such events. (“Rinse and repeat,” he said.) He had been onstage the previous night, in San Francisco, and had at one point invited Vietnam

veterans and former war protesters in the audience to stand up, together, and accept applause. In the morning, passing through airport security, he had removed from his pants pockets a few items that he always carries: a button from the uniform of a soldier who participated in the D Day landing; a silver heart; a minié ball that a friend picked up at Gettysburg. Over lunch, McPeak described a moment when he and the other advisers first saw a scene about the release and repatriation of American prisoners of war, in 1973. On the soundtrack, Burns had added Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” At least one adviser found this too triumphal; an ex-P.O.W. in the room did not. “I was kind of in the middle of that, hoping to bridge an unbridgeable gap,” McPeak said. He came to agree with Burns that viewers deserved a moment of emotional, perhaps tearful, release: “There’s not much about our Vietnam experience that is uplifting,” he said. “It’s mostly an enormous downer. But, if there’s any glimmer of good news, it was that we got our guys back.” McPeak also recalled an objection that he’d made to a script change. In a section about the massacre of South Vietnamese civilians, in My Lai, in 1968, “murder” became “killing.” (The final script: “The killing of civilians has happened in every war.”) McPeak pressed for “murder.” His argument, he said, was, “Let’s open the kimono—let’s tell it all, see it the way it is.” At lunch, Burns defended his change, on the ground that My Lai continues to have “a toxic, radioactive effect” on opinion. “Killing” was the better word, he said, “even though My Lai is murder.” The general had lost that argument but accepted the final wording. At the restaurant, he told me, “I’m in. I don’t think it’s tough enough, but I’m in.” (He had already praised the film as “monumental work.”) He went on, “I believe My Lai was my fault. My responsibility.” He had been a senior officer in a U.S. military that “never stepped up to accept responsibility.” Burns, struck by these words, said, “I’m so glad that we know you.” Earlier, Burns had said, “Documentaries are traditionally advocacy: ‘Here’s a big problem. Here are the bad guys. Here are the good guys. How do we

change this?’ That’s fine. It’s like an editorial, and that’s what editorials do.” He described his own films, in contrast, as exercises in “emotional archeology” that aspire to be works of art. “We just happen to work in history,” he said. (He sometimes talks of the need to enliven “the dry dates, facts, and events of the past.”) Burns frequently—almost hourly—says, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time,” paraphrasing a remark made

by Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz.” Burns uses the line less to acknowledge historical uncertainty than to advertise inclusiveness: a desire to guide all but the most sectarian or jaded viewers through an obstacle course of their own biases. He is not disengaged from his material, but his sense of a subject, and his sense of an audience’s reaction to that subject, seem to be fused. He once said, “I want to bring everybody in.” That instinct, from which Burns is afforded little respite, can give him the air of someone running for office. In the late eighties, while making “The Civil War,” Burns started carrying with him a copy of a letter written by a Union Army officer, Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, a week before his death in battle. Ballou’s words, which have some of the iambic sinew of the Gettysburg Address—“how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution . . .”—became well known after they were included in the film. “I can’t tell you how many lunches and dinners he’d pull out the letter and read it aloud,” Dayton Duncan, a writer and producer of Burns’s projects, said. “The other members of the family would be rolling their eyes, but I always found it moving.” In the decades since “The Civil War,” Burns has evolved into an editor-in-chief. After Florentine has committed to a subject, the company sends out proposals to

seduce funders. A director starts identifying interview subjects; a writer starts on a script. Geoffrey Ward, who has written the bulk of Burns’s scripts since the mid-eighties, as well as his own books of American history, wrote “The Vietnam War.” Burns sometimes still conducts interviews, although Lynn Novick did eighty-five of the hundred interviews filmed for “The Vietnam War.” These sessions use a single camera. The eyes of an interviewee are flooded with light, as if for an ophthalmological examination. The setting, Novick told me, has to register as “a real place—not a studio—but not so much of a real place that you’re curious about where you are.” (Her apartment, on the Upper West Side, has been used in eight documentaries.) A session often begins with an effort to dampen an interviewee’s dreams of becoming the Shelby Foote of the new series—the alpha anecdotalist. In the early years of production on a documentary, Burns gives his opinion on script revisions and interviews. He’s likely to be reading relevant historical accounts—this summer, in preparation for the probable L.B.J. project, he revisited Robert Caro’s acclaimed multi-volume biography, and for the series on postCivil War African-American history he was reading about the Ku Klux Klan. But he does not strive for expertise. “I can’t be in the weeds” of scholarship, he said. He has too little time, and, besides, “It’s important to have someone saying, ‘Who the fuck cares?’ ” There are more Vietnamese voices in “The Vietnam War” than Burns at first thought necessary. Novick had to make the case for including them. “I wanted to pull them back, because we’re making an American film,” he said. “Her genius was to insist.” One powerful interview is with Bảo Ninh, the novelist and former North Vietnamese soldier, who describes returning home from war: “Six years without a letter. For six years, my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. Can you imagine the happiness of a mother?” But, out of respect for neighbors, the family didn’t celebrate: “In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return.” Burns, warding off potential critics, told me that the way he delegates is “lawful”—it breaks no filmmaking rules. He added, “The one thing I won’t THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



Kid’s Room camera saw “ Y our someone.” One afternoon, work-

ing at home, I received an e-mail with this subject line. I opened the message to discover a grainy video still of a tall, blurry ghost in a baseball cap, abducting our infant son. It took me a moment to identify this intruder. “Hey!” my husband called from upstairs. “I set up the camera!” The baby monitor, an ominous black orb about the size of an avocado, sits on a high shelf, unsuccessfully concealed between a Teddy bear and a seashell. An app on my phone streams footage of the baby’s room. We had been unaware of the notification feature. These e-mails kept coming. Each night, more footage bloomed: two huge albino manatees, floating spectrally through the nursery. If it’s strange to spy on your baby, it may be even weirder to become a voyeur of your midnight selves. In an essay on F. W. Murnau’s classic horror movie “Nosferatu,” Jim Shepard describes the way the director designed individual shots “not only as static compositions but also as spaces continually open to every sort of intrusion and transformation. . . . Murnau turned it into a compendium of comings and goings, of slightly alarming trajectories, of reminders that there was always stuff outside of the frame that the viewer couldn’t see.” Surveillance feeds have opened thousands of such spaces, transforming the most banal settings into potential crime scenes. There’s a reason that the home-security camera, with its fixed, unblinking eye, has been exploited over and over again by the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. It’s difficult to watch even a sleeping baby in that submarine palette without a kick of dread. Open the app, and suddenly a room in your home becomes



one of Murnau’s haunted thresholds. Who knew that a smiling plush lion could look so totally sinister? Everything seems on the verge of rocking, billowing, falling open. Adding to the disorientation, you can choose to enter this movie at any time; it’s being shot just down the hall. Perhaps the scariest thing is how quickly I’ve gotten over my unease; I’ve become addicted to live-streaming plotless footage of our baby. Raccoony eyes

aglitter, our son stares directly into the lens with the beautiful unself-consciousness of all wild things, regarding it with the same indiscriminate curiosity that he fixes on his curled feet and the Diaper Genie and the moon, unaware that anything is gazing back at him. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: nobody coos at your home-surveillance footage. In this way, it’s cousin to that other Love Rorschach, the inky ultrasound photograph, which to parents looks like an adorable human profile and to all other people like a Polaroid of a sea monster. Once, waiting for my sister at a restaurant, I stared at the phone so intently that the bartender finally asked me, “What are you watching?” It was a sleep rodeo: my husband pacing with our swaddled son. Shyly, I handed over the phone. “Oh. Wow.

Yikes!” he said cheerfully. “That’s fucking eerie.” Not everything prompts a notification. Our son rolling onto his side does not register, even though we reacted to this the way the Olympic judges reacted to Simone Biles. Sleep doesn’t make the cut, either. Nor does his invisible, unstoppable growth. “Children vanish without dying,” Joy Williams wrote. Every time the app refreshes and shows an empty crib, I feel a stab of surprise. Children do endure in space and time, but they’re always changing, and no camera is sensitive enough to record the uncanny speed at which this transformation happens. Already the baby has doubled in size. “A slow-motion instant,” a friend and veteran parent told me, describing how the years would now pass. A camera is a tool that spools up time, but of course it cannot stop it. These days, I mostly keep the faith that our son will continue to exist when we shut the nursery door. But I am often surprised at the strength of my animal need to hold him, or to behold him if touch is impossible. I’ve taken to keeping the phone holstered between the mattress and the bed frame. Why does it feel so frighteningly plausible that a baby will simply disappear? This is the stuff of fairy tales, I realize, the ur-nightmare. It’s a function, I think, of the general mystery of birth and death: those comings and goings from somewhere spectacularly, eternally beyond the frame. People do wink into and out of this world. When I’m unable to sleep, I can watch our baby. I am watching right now. I can see the bottoms of his feet and count his ten toes, virtually ruffle the pale cap of his hair. He is breathing, I am almost certain. Go in and check, says the Dark Voice of Unreason. Go in and touch him. 



give up is that primacy in the editing room. The films are made there. No amount of rare or never-before-seen archival material, or even great interviews—and they are great—can replace the triage, the decisions.” (When absorbed in editing, he often ends up sitting on his haunches.) “I seem to know what we should do next,” he said— both at the start, when the material is “this incoherent blob,” and later. He told me that Amy Stechler, his first wife, who collaborated on his early documentaries, once announced that she’d cut two frames—a twelfth of a second—out of an hour-long film; he identified the cut. Two or three years into a major project—perhaps at a time when another series is nearing broadcast, and yet another is being born—Burns is able to watch a “blind assembly” of a documentary’s first episode. This contains only two elements: clips from interviews and a narration recorded, temporarily, by Burns. Even more than Peter Coyote, the actor who has become Burns’s usual narrator, Burns makes a script sound like a eulogy read by a depressive, with every sentence suggesting slight disappointment. (“He doesn’t like rising tones,” Coyote told me. “Occasionally I get away with it.” He added, “What I’m able to do is thread the listener through sentences with lots of subordinate clauses.”) There are no other visuals, so most of the time the screen is black. I saw a script that Burns had marked during a blindassembly screening of the first episode of “Country Music.” He had crossed out two-thirds of the early clips, and he had written notes about what remained: “Nice but later”; “Where’s this coming from?” His anticipation of an audience’s likely boredom, disquiet, or satisfaction is unusually visceral. He recently referred to a sequence, in “The Vietnam War,” in which the testimony of Bill Zimmerman, an anti-war activist, is set against that of an Army veteran, who describes his dismay at seeing American protesters carrying North Vietnamese flags. “What you’ve done is allow someone who tensed up listening to Zimmerman to exhale,” Burns explained. “And someone who has exhaled with Zimmerman to say,

‘Of course, there’s another truth.’ ” “The Vietnam War” feels like a departure from Burns’s previous work. It has animated three-dimensional maps and foreign-language interviews. There’s rock music, as well as a score commissioned from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Erik Ewers, a longtime editor at Florentine, who has worked on dozens of hours of film chivvied along by ragtime and bluegrass, told me, with feeling, that the opportunity to use “Dazed and Confused,” by Led Zeppelin, was “a dream come true.” The film includes striking sequences in which well-known black-and-white photographs, always central to Burns’s work, coëxist with color film and color photography. The subject, being recent and contested—and its traumas sometimes evident in the stiffness around the mouths of witnesses—has its own narrative potency. The war is not a room in the House of Americana; the film’s ambition is not to breathe life into the dead. There’s little call for the narrator of the series, or its interviewees, to talk of its subject as a representation of America. (From “The Shakers”: “They are, in many ways, the American dream.” “Baseball”: “It’ll do for a figure for the American system.” “Thomas Hart Benton”: “He knew where America was and he knew what America was.” “Jazz”: “Jazz music objectifies America.”) Still, when the narration begins, its liturgical phrasing, and its reach for a negotiated settlement among viewers, will seem familiar. “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy,” Coyote announces, in voice-over. “It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world.” (An internal debate about whether “failure” should be “defeat” lasted for months, Burns told me.) “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation,” Coyote continues. “And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American Presidents, belonging to both political parties.” Burns, who is a Democrat, said that he’d become friendly with Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, joking that they’d developed a “bro-

mance.” In a recent interview with Tyler Cowen, Sasse praised Burns, saying, “One of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon. He’s trying to give us some shared experiences.” In a 2003 article, in the journal Rethinking History, David Harlan, a historian and the author of the “The Degradation of American History,” described Burns’s major films as “dramas of integration,” referring not only to the centrality of race in his work—“Baseball” pivots around Jackie Robinson— but to Burns’s overarching commitment to the idea of a shared American culture, one whose values and ideals “can be found not in European intellectual traditions but in American social practices, in the myriad things Americans actually do together.” A Burns documentary seems to have the ambition of becoming the kind of binding American experience—the anthem at a ballgame—that interests Burns as a filmmaker. But the promotion of a national canon requires, first, the suggestion that the culture is struggling without it—that there are no other teachers left. In one of our conversations, Burns described George Washington as a quite forgotten man. “If George Washington can be lost, then anybody can be lost,” he said. He recently told an audience at the National Press Club that Vietnam is “a war we have consciously ignored.” This viewpoint seems to overlook decades of popular fiction and nonfiction, including a multipart documentary series in the eighties, on PBS. Burns’s devotion to the United States as a subject also requires the removal of foreign distractions. So a viewer of “Brooklyn Bridge,” Burns’s first professional film, from 1981, would be forgiven for thinking, wrongly, that it described the world’s first suspension bridge. The first episode of “Baseball” barely mentions overseas precursors of the sport. Burns also needs to expel intractability. In the first episode of “The Civil War,” Foote, using words that some viewers found hard to take, described the Civil War as the result of a kind of misunderstanding. “We failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” he said. “Americans THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And it failed.” Foote’s voice is one of many— throughout the series, Barbara J. Fields, the Columbia historian, discussed the war as one part of an unfinished struggle for African-American equality—but he is central to the series, and Burns often quotes his commentary. I asked him about President Donald Trump’s reference to the Civil War, in a radio interview this spring. After speaking admiringly of Andrew Jackson, Trump said, “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump’s remarks were widely criticized as fatuous. Alexandra Petri’s comic response, in the Washington Post, was in the form of a letter from Sullivan Ballou: “Ah! But yet my heart fondly wishes that Andrew Jackson could have done a deal.” Burns and I were speaking before white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, and before Trump expressed his chagrin about “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” commemorating Confederate figures. Burns, who has sharply criticized Trump in public, calling him “an infantile, bullying man,” said that he actually agreed with the President on the question of compromise and the Civil War. “I think he got excoriated for the wrong reason,” he told me. “Yes, this is our genius, and we didn’t do it.” The Senate had just voted on repeal of the Affordable Care Act. When Senator McCain cast the decisive vote against repeal, Burns e-mailed three words—“Profile in courage”—to his friend Mark Salter, who is McCain’s long-time adviser and former speechwriter. Given current political conditions—and the history of Republican implacability about Obamacare—it was curious to hear Burns say, the next day, that in American politics “the problem now is lack of compromise.” In Los Angeles, Burns and Novick went to an appointment while McPeak stayed at the restaurant with me. He explained that, last year, when “The Vietnam War” was finished, the consultant group disbanded; he, Salter, and Thomas Vallely, a former marine and a director 56


of the Vietnam program at the Harvard Kennedy School, stayed on, as a kind of rebuttal unit. “What we’re trying to do is bulletproof this thing,” McPeak said. “Ken relies on public funding, in large measure, so it would not be good to go out with something that creates a huge backlash.” (In fact, less than a quarter of Burns’s funding derives from government sources; the rest comes from corporations, foundations, and individual donors.) “It’s not that we’re trying to pull our punches,” McPeak said, but there was, he observed, more than one way to describe a thing accurately. “I tell my wife the truth, but I don’t want to be an extremist about it.” He laughed. “There are ways to say things that cool the temperature in the room, and there are ways that increase it.” When “The Vietnam War” is broadcast, he said, “the attack that will get the most attention will come from the Flat Earth Society—people saying, ‘We woulda coulda shoulda won, and what happened is that Walter Cronkite turned against it.’ ”

urns had his sixty-fourth birthday B while he was in Los Angeles. That morning, at breakfast, he remarked that his younger brother, Ric, who is also a filmmaker, had just sent him an e-mail referring to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Ken said that, when writing a reply, he had begun to quote— “When I get older, losing my hair”— and then paused. “It’s a sore point, because Ric’s got this gigantic Friar Tuck bald spot, and I haven’t. I deleted it and said, ‘Thank you, love you, too.’ ” He observed that “Kenny,” as his brother used to call him, had only ever been used by family members and strangers—“by assholes, saying, ‘Hey, Kenny, how you doing?’ ” Burns then quoted a photo caption once published in National Geographic: “Kenny Burns takes lunch from mother’s hand.” In the April, 1959, issue, a black-and-white photo shows a smiling woman, in a plaid shirt, facing an infant propped on a wooden chair, as sunlight falls on his hair. The accompanying article, written by Burns’s father, Robert, and illustrated with his photographs, describes a stay of many months, a few years earlier, in the French Alpine village of Saint-Véran. Robert Burns was then a Ph.D. candidate in anthropol-

ogy at Columbia, and the visit was fieldwork. “The village at that time had one foot in the twentieth century and one in the Middle Ages,” Burns had told me. “People brought their cows into their farm kitchens for the winter—warmth for them as well as the cows.” Burns had his first birthday in France, and Ric was born after they returned, so Saint-Véran existed for the boys only as family myth. Their father sometimes baked the kind of bread he’d eaten there. “He said that you needed a saw to cut through it in the middle of the winter, but then if you dunked it in coffee or milk or wine it would release itself. He would re-create it. I don’t think it was very good, but we loved it because he made it, and it was from this Brigadoon that we had never been to.” Burns didn’t mean to suggest that France had made his father happy. “I don’t know if ‘happiness’ was even a word that could have been a part of my father’s lexicon,” he said. Robert Burns never finished his dissertation, and never advanced beyond an assistant professorship, first at the University of Delaware, then at the University of Michigan. “That hung over us like a miasmic smog,” Burns said. “He had received some negative feedback from his thesis adviser. After four or five chapters, he never wrote another word.” Professionally, “that doomed him, plus my mother’s sickness.” His mother, Lyla, was given a diagnosis of cancer soon after the family returned from France. She died in 1965, when Ken was eleven. He said that someone shown a sequence of Christmas-card photos of him and his brother, taken by his father, would not guess at the “madness and sadness” that overtook the family. Ric Burns described the circumstances more directly. The boys grew up with “a dying mother and a mentally ill father,” he told me. Their father likely suffered from bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders, and was “caught in endless loops of self-defense and self-exoneration.” Although Robert Burns was not violent, he was often enraged. In 1958, he had a breakdown and spent four months in a mental institution; the boys were taken to visit him, but were not told where they were. After their mother’s death, Ric said, “we were running the show— we were more parents than my father.”

When Ric was in tenth grade, and Ken in eleventh, their father took a research trip to Morocco and the French Alps for several months. He left a checkbook; Ken paid the bills. This upbringing created unusual freedoms, Ric said, but was still a “Bergmanesque, dark thing, which Ken is determined to save himself from, and determined, in some sense, to save the world from, too.” Ken Burns sees a connection between his father’s distress and his own productivity. He meets deadlines and keeps to budgets. There are only a few examples of failed ideas, and in these cases Burns was not at fault. A biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., was defeated, Burns said, by the King family: “They wrote me a letter saying, ‘We think you are the person to do the biography,’ and I said, ‘You are right.’ And I went to visit them in Atlanta, and I realized they weren’t going to let go.” He added, “This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so desperately tried to control in death.” When Ken started making films, in the late seventies, Ric sometimes helped. In the mid-eighties, Ken began work on “The Civil War.” Ric was then a graduate student at Columbia. In Ken’s telling, Ric, like his father, “couldn’t figure out the gear that got you out of neutral. So I asked him to come on and work with me.” (Ric doesn’t quite see himself in this description, but he was grateful to have been shown a path out of the academy.) Ken said, “He came on as an assistant, and then as a co-producer, and just did unbelievable stuff.” (Ric said that he was never an assistant.) Their working relationship seems to have been mutually rewarding, if combative. Ric said, “I think Ken has often felt that there’s an abyss right behind him, and that if he doesn’t fight hard enough he’ll get sucked back into it.” His brother could be willful: “Ken rules his world with an iron fist.” They did not work together again. Ric had the impression, from Ken, “that the only way it would be O.K. if I continued to work as a filmmaker was if I worked for him, and I had a different point of view about that.” Ric went on to make admired documentaries of his own, including “New York,” in 1999. Ken Burns’s film series about the Second World War, which aired a decade

¥ ago, was called “The War.” When the title first appears, it’s superimposed on an uncaptioned 1945 photo of Robert Burns, then a recently commissioned second lieutenant, smiling. Burns described a trip that his father made to the French Alps in the late seventies. “He was going to put together a little film, and I was going to help him,” he said. He took a 16-mm. camera, and shot landscapes, keeping the camera still. “The compositions were impeccable,” Burns said, but the shots were too short. “He ran the camera for four to five seconds, whereas we count off in our head to at least fifteen.” He explained to his father, delicately, that there was a way to stretch the shots, by printing each frame twice. “But, basically, it was the same as when his thesis adviser had talked to him. That there could be anything wrong! He just said, ‘That’s it, I don’t want to do it.’ ”

¥ Burns added, “He was a great carpenter. At one point, where he was really flailing, in the seventies, I said, ‘Why don’t you become a carpenter? You’re so good at it.’ He thought that was insulting, which, of course, it was, in a way.” n a morning in late June, Burns was O sitting with colleagues in a screening room in the West Village. He had a legal pad on his lap, and was preparing to see, for the first time, a restored version of “Brooklyn Bridge,” which he made not long after leaving Hampshire College, in 1975. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1982. Burns has sometimes suggested that his subject was daringly dull. “Every time I’d say, ‘I want to do an hour on, you know, a bridge,’ people would say, ‘You’re crazy!’ ” he told me. This may underplay the success of “The Great Bridge,” David THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



y grandmother used to count M the black faces in the Christmas choir on television and there was a time when I looked out for gay relationships in much the same way. Ten years ago, living in England, I’d turn on the television for the Channel 4 evening news and catch the last minutes of “Hollyoaks,” a soap opera set in a small town in the North West and largely about working-class characters. Two sixth formers (high-school seniors) were in love. John Paul had been bullied when he first came out, but he was a tough lad on the pitch. Craig, a slow starter, was still in the closet. I began to tune in earlier. The representations of gay people in the culture were changing, moving into an era in which terror of AIDS was receding. I rooted for Craig, wanting him to have the freedom to be open that I hadn’t had growing up in white-suburban and black-activist America. The problem with watching entire episodes of “Hollyoaks” was that the straight shenanigans were of no interest to me compared with those of these cute boys, who, because of some morality code, were never shirtless at the same time in either of their narrow beds. Then I discovered that someone was extracting the John Paul-and-Craig story line and regularly posting ten-minute segments on YouTube. One evening session was enough to fill me in on the afternoon when Craig gives in to his true feelings, storms out of one of his A-level exams, and bangs on John Paul’s door. In the clips that followed, John Paul threatens to end things, and Craig promises to tell his girlfriend and everyone else the truth. 58


Meanwhile, I saw that other gay story lines could be found on the YouTube sidebar menu, where they were listed under the lovers’ names: Luke and Noah (U.S. pioneers of the gay daytime-TV kiss), Roman and Deniz (a German figure skater who bagged a Turkish ice-hockey player). Pilots from Portugal, footballers from Argentina, very dull boys from Finland— YouTube was the day’s end, and love

is a fix, like a pint of vanilla ice cream, which I like at room temperature, taken through a straw. The small screen suited the ephemeral nature of the relationships; when one story line went cold, there was another couple in the sidebar. I’d never read fiction for young adults, but I would watch the gay story lines on television for young adults, so long as they had no vampires or werewolves. Sentimental viewers like me wanted the gay couples to live happily ever after—for young gay love to triumph over parents, bullies, and clueless girlfriends—but the premise of the soap opera is that things don’t work out. For Aaron and Robert, a wild couple about whom every resi-

dent in the Yorkshire village of Emmerdale has strong opinions, doom lurks in the fact that Aaron is a big jailbird mess and Robert a total criminal. Often, it seemed that our team was never going to win. Passion doesn’t save Christian and Oliver, the boxer and his bartender from one German series. I stopped watching before Christian rediscovers women and leaves. On a popular Dutch soap opera, Lucas, the obnoxious rich kid, falls into a coma after shy Edwin has kissed him. When he wakes, Edwin dies from the Ebola virus. Their destruction wasn’t camp; it was a pity. After that, I made a rule not to watch if I knew that one of the guys was going to die. I recently clicked on my YouTube history to find “Isak and Even Part 162”—the point at which I’d left off in a gay story line from a recent Norwegian teen Web series, “Skam,” that I’d discovered on my return to the soap-opera gay sidebar after a long time away. The boys’ story advances in clips that are shorter than thirty seconds; the couple are usually shot in closeup, whispering, gazing into each other’s eyes. One of them is bipolar, and I can’t face the story line that I suspect is coming. These days, most of the gay characters I meet are on network TV and already out of the closet, even admired by their straight colleagues as players on their sexual field. I can’t get into gay soap opera anymore, but YouTube keeps me in touch with the soundtrack of my past, like that audio recording someone posted of a Beatles concert at the Indiana State Fair in 1964, an event at which I was present, screaming my little head off. 



McCullough’s 1972 book, which was Burns’s inspiration. (McCullough became a script consultant on the film, and also its narrator.) But it’s true that, in the late seventies, it was not every young filmmaker’s dream to craft an hour of narrative history, for television. Burns’s choices were unfashionable. “Totally,” he said. “And that was O.K.” He later added, “I had rejected cinéma vérité. I just found it a little bit too precious that you would limit yourself to no narration, no music, and pretend that you were getting, in a Godardian sense, truth twenty-four times a second.” At Hampshire, he’d been taught by Jerome Liebling, the photographer and filmmaker. Burns recalled asking him an overwrought question about auteur theory; Liebling’s response had been to “take me by the elbow, put me out of his office, and shut the door.” Burns went on, “If I hadn’t met Jerry, I’d be teaching film theory at some thirdrate college, and bitter.” In Burns’s view, conventional narrative—“and then and then and then”—is “about as good a thing as has ever been invented.” He contends that the catastrophe of the Second World War caused academic historians to lose confidence in narrative, and to be drawn instead to Freud and Marx and to “semiotics and symbolism and deconstruction and postmodernism and queer studies and African-American studies and feminism.” A challenge to “top-down, great men” history was welcome, Burns said, but these alternatives “were like blind men describing one part of the elephant, very accurately.” From the start, he said, he “was intuitively practicing something that included all of that.” Stephen Ambrose, the popular historian, is said to have remarked that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” (PBS and Florentine Films often use the line as a promotional blurb.) After the success of “The Civil War,” some academic historians praised Burns, but others lamented his popular reach, and accused him of sappiness and nostalgia. In a collection of essays by historians about “The Civil War,” Leon Litwack noted how the last episode jumps ahead to the gatherings of Union and Confederate veterans, at Gettysburg, in 1913 and 1938: the effect is “to underscore and celebrate national reunification and the birth of the

modern American nation, while ignoring the brutality, violence, and racial repression on which that reconciliation rested.” Eric Foner, similarly, wrote that “Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation.” Burns, in a 1994 interview, said that the academy had “done a terrific job in the last hundred years of murdering our history.” He told me that criticism of his work was at times “gratuitous and petty,” or powered by jealousy. He recalled two documentaries that had inspired him. One, a portrait of Gertrude Stein, by Perry Miller Adato, from 1970, used actors, reading quotations, alongside a narrator. The other was “City of Gold,” a Canadian short from 1957: the camera moved across archival photographs of the Klondike gold rush of the eighteen-nineties, and transitioned, almost imperceptibly, to near-motionless contemporary footage. On his first viewing, Burns said to himself, “Oh, I know where to go with that.” He spent much of his twenties and thirties in photography archives, with a camera pointed at photos attached, with magnets, to an easel. (He could pan and tilt, but zooms were too unsteady. These had to be done by a specialist, expensively, at an animation table, frame by frame.) Burns wasn’t alone in treating photographs this way—one thinks of the opening titles for “Cheers”—but the technique came to be associated with his work, and was later named for him. In 2002, Steve Jobs invited Burns to visit Apple, and demonstrated a new iMovie feature that engineers were calling the Ken Burns Effect. Jobs asked if Apple could keep the name, and Burns agreed, as long as the company supplied equipment to some nonprofit groups and to his own office. The two men became friends. Burns often stayed with Jobs in Palo Alto; Jobs’s daughter interned at Florentine. In the West Village screening room, Burns told his colleagues that at his first audience Q. & A., in 1981, a woman asked him where he’d found footage of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. “I said, ‘Well, Ma’am, it was built between 1869 and 1883, there were no motion pictures.’ She said, ‘No, no, I’m talking when the scows brought the blocks of stone to the bridge, and they were being hoisted up.’

And I said, ‘Those were all still photographs.’ And she said, ‘No, they weren’t.’ ” He laughed. “And I said to myself, ‘Shut up, you won.’ ” The film is in two halves. A history of the bridge’s construction is followed by a meditation on its place in American culture. When the screening ended, Burns said, “God, I knew every single thing by heart. Every word.” He thanked the technicians in the room: “You guys, it is so gorgeous, so unbelievable.”Among other fixes, the restoration had adjusted color and removed the vertical “bounce” that affects most old reels of film. Daniel J. White, the editor in charge of the process, observed to Burns that bounce can give film “a nice, organic look, and a lot of older people appreciate that. But, any time I talk to a twenty-year-old, they’re like, ‘Why is it doing that? What is that?’ ” He was flapping his hand in the air. Burns was struck by how the film seemed divided into scenes by captions and by fades to black. “It doesn’t really matter—because the impulse is kind of pure—but captions like ‘Leaving Cincinnati’ and ‘Early Bridges’?” He was laughing. “Right? I would never do ‘Early Bridges’ now.” He then asked about the color tint in his interview with Arthur Miller, who, in the film’s final spoken words, says of the bridge, “It makes you feel that maybe you, too, could add something that would last and be beautiful.” Unusually, Burns had shot the interview outdoors. “I remember that day as warmer,” he said. “So could we bring him down just a few points and make it a bit—orange?” “You got it,” White said. Burns asked to rewatch the shot that follows Miller: the bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn side, against an evening sky that’s dark and threatening, except for a bright band above the horizon. (An image of a cannon against a similar, if less boastfully spectacular, sunset became a leitmotif in “The Civil War.”) “I just want to say, it’s all in that shot,” Burns said. Seeing its color restored, he said, “I almost started to cry.” He recalled a day in the spring of 1979, when he happened to be driving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Noticing the sky, he stopped in Dumbo and scrambled to THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


shoot. “The sun was going down and everything was gray and silver in the clouds,” he said. “It was the kind of thing where everybody stopped. Didn’t matter who you were. There was an ultimate self-remembering that went on, a pause, the way you do when you stand in front of the Grand Canyon. That was Roll 53—the grail we’ve been tilting toward ever since.” n Sunapee, Burns apologized for the Idriving size of his S.U.V., a Denali, before to a neighboring town to buy dog food. In the car, he said that he first stopped drinking in 1988, while making “The Civil War.” He didn’t have an uncontrolled, “jittery” problem, he explained, but “if there’s a box of cookies I eat the cookies.” He described his subsequent drinking as if reading from a curriculum vitae: “In the mid-nineties, I think it was white wine, and then I gave that up. And then I did red wine, and then I stopped that for a while, and somewhere in the midaughts I started with prosecco, and I did prosecco for seven or eight years.” He had a rationale for the prosecco: it

seemed more egalitarian than champagne, and less likely to cause hangovers. “But then I realized I just liked prosecco, so I stopped that, four years ago.” He added, “I’ve been thinking maybe it’s time to go back and do something again.” He referred to his first divorce, in 1993. “That really hurt, that took a long time for me to heal, and I spent a decade focussing on the girls—and having fun, out in the world, and dating— but it really took a full decade to escape the pain of it.” He went on, “I have a kind of vigilance that works very, very well with filmmaking and parenting. And vigilance isn’t necessarily the ingredient of a relationship.” He added, “You actually have to have some trust.” On my way to Sunapee, I’d stopped at Walpole, to visit Burns’s office, and to see, in Burns’s orchard, a replica of the garden pavilion at Monticello. I’d eaten lunch with Dayton Duncan, the script writer and producer, in a local restaurant that Burns partly owns. We then walked across town, past a war memorial unusual for the ample space left for the dead of future wars, and

arrived at the white, Gothic Revival house where Burns’s films are edited. Duncan showed me a few unfinished scenes—narrated by Burns—from a middle episode of “Country Music.” Elvis Costello and Jack White talked, with charm, about Loretta Lynn. A little later, there was an interview with Charley Pride. Burns, as narrator, explained that Pride grew up “in a shotgun shack in the Mississippi Delta.” Onscreen, there was a photo of a house. It’s a common experience, when you watch Burns’s films, to become aware of your own quiet querying, even as the storytelling machine rolls forward: Did we just see the thing being mentioned—the hill in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, the country singer’s home— or not? In this case, not. As Duncan explained, no picture of Pride’s childhood home is known to exist, so a stand-in was found. (A few weeks later, a new stand-in image, by Dorothea Lange, took its place.) It’s hard to think of this license as deception, but it’s not an inevitable part of documentary filmmaking. Burns told

“And that’s the absolute biggest Ping-Pong player you could find?”

me that he expects his audience to “surrender to narrative.” But his vigilance— his investment in his viewers’ relationship with his material—can sometimes feel like micromanagement. A camera pan that essentially gives instructions on how to look at a photo can be revelatory, or feel like a nudge in the ribs. With repetition, a musical idea can start to grate. In Burns’s films, one rarely sees a wide American landscape without hearing the screech of a red-tailed hawk. (“The Simpsons” follows the same rule.) The opening clip of “The Vietnam War” shows a marine, lying in mud, raising a helmet on the end of his rifle, to check for snipers. On the soundtrack, there’s then the ping of a ricocheting bullet. Burns added the ping, and said that the film shows no evidence of a bullet hitting the helmet. Ric Burns, connecting his brother’s upbringing to the narrative “choke hold” that he has sometimes felt in Ken’s work, said, “Part of the reason some things get made is because one’s grip is so strong. It’s very difficult to let go.” When I saw Burns in Sunapee, he argued that fastidiousness about photographic authenticity would restrict his ability to tell stories of people cut off from cameras by poverty or geography. He then explained what, at Florentine Films, is known as Broyles’s Law. In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his

name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.” Broyles’s Law, then, is: “If it’s superimportant, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” The photograph of Long and the troopers stayed in the film. Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’ ” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s “Bells from the Deep,” which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stagemanaged. “If he chooses to do that, that’s O.K. And then there are other people who’d rather do reënactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.” I later spoke to Herzog, who is a friend of Burns’s. Talking of “The Vietnam War,” he said, “I binge-watched it. I would feel itching: ‘Let’s continue.’ ” When he was through, he called Burns. “I just said, ‘This is very big.’ ” The film had flaws, he told me, “but it doesn’t matter.” The project was at once sweeping and serious. Herzog said, “Let’s focus on the big boulder of rock that landed in the meadow and nobody knows how it materialized.” In Sunapee, Burns and I took his boat onto the lake with Olivia, his twelve-year-old. We circled around an island. After half an hour, returning at some speed, Burns said, “I’m having trouble with the brake!” Olivia screamed, then stopped screaming long enough to explain—“He does this every time, it doesn’t get old”—and then screamed some more. The boat accelerated toward the dock, where their dog stood, barking. “I’m sorry, sweetie!” Burns shouted over the engine. “I love you!” We went out for ice cream, at the harbor, and Burns told his daughters that, “in the Civil War, when people

had been in combat—you know what that means?—they said they’d ‘seen the elephant.’ I guess it’s just the most exotic thing they could think of.” He noticed Olivia’s bruised knees, and described them in Burnsian terms: “You’d expect to tilt up and see a tough boy.” As we drove back, with the sun low, there was a family joke or two about Trump. Then Olivia mentioned that she’d met Barack Obama half a dozen times. Burns is friendly with the former President, and has hopes of making at least one documentary about him. This idea has been discussed with, but not yet blessed by, its subject. “He sent me a video when I couldn’t make it, remember?” Olivia said. Burns pulled over, so that he could find it on his phone. In the spring of 2014, Burns and his wife were invited, along with a few other couples, to an informal dinner at the White House. “We had drinks out on the porch, and we went out to the garden that Michelle was growing,” he recalled. “Then we came in and ate.” A video clip from that night—an artifact from a now distant era—shows the President in the private residence, in a plaid shirt, looking into Burns’s phone camera. “Olivia, I miss you!” Obama says. “I wish you were here tonight. But, since you aren’t, this is the best I can do, to send you a message. I hope you’re doing good. I hope school is fun.” Burns drove on. “We got there at six, we left at two. He didn’t want us to leave. He wanted to dance more.” Earlier, Burns had said of the Obama project, “I am a bull at a rodeo, snorting to get out and do this. I would love to sit down with him and do fifteen or twenty two-hour sessions. And make a film, in a couple of years, that would be in his own words. It would just be him. And then, in ten years, we’d add all the other things. So we could get at least fifteen years away from Obama’s Presidency and triangulate.” He went on, “Hopefully, we’d have then left behind the specific gravity of journalism, and near-history, and passed to a place where we can just do it.”  THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017




the past decade, a new genre of highly Iwhonpersonal TV comedies, starring the people write the scripts, has flourished. The rise of streaming services and more experimental cable networks, the proliferation of Web series, and the most recent standup boom have all played a part; so did “Louie.” In 2010, Louis C.K.’s genre-melting, insistently idiosyncratic series—and the complete creative control that made it possible—inspired a generation of funny writers to point a camera at themselves. Watching their shows can feel more like reading a novel, or a collection of comic personal essays, than like watching “Cheers.” In 2017, the number of comedies starring writers has grown too high for any mortal, no matter how ambitious or slothlike, to keep up with. The following pages feature portraits of some of today’s boldest writer-performers. Two of them began as playwrights. Phoebe Waller-Bridge based the thrillingly caustic “Fleabag,” about a depressed, sexually adventurous Londoner, on her one-woman show of the same name. (An unforgettable scene involves a laptop and a video of the fortyfourth U.S. President.) Michaela Coel adapted the exuberant “Chewing Gum,” set in a London council estate, from her play “Chewing Gum Dreams.” She stars as Tracey, a lusty Pentecostal virgin with bumbling verve. If “House of Cards” diminished our tolerance for archly clever protagonists who break the fourth wall, “Fleabag” and “Chewing Gum” redeem the trope, with jokes so sharp and exacting that they register as a shock. Web series are ideal vehicles for writers who want to prove that they can bring their own stories to life. Issa Rae’s excellent “Insecure” evolved from “The Misadventures of

Awkward Black Girl,” Rae’s Web series about life and love in Los Angeles. The show blends vulnerable realism with rapid-fire jokes between Rae’s character, Issa, and her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji). “Broad City,” created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, also celebrates the fizzy chemistry between best friends. The show’s smart-stoner vibe was honed on YouTube. Pete Holmes’s series “Crashing” is a semiautobiographical portrait of a standup comic whose marriage has ended. That sounds a bit like “Louie,” but, as with the other shows in this portfolio, voice makes all the difference. Holmes’s alter ego is earnest and religious, and “Crashing” explores why other people can find those qualities unnerving. Not all TV auteurs write about themselves; some create roles that only they could play. Rachel Bloom is a wit with Broadway pipes, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a delirious musical confection that gives her ample opportunity to belt. On Bill Hader’s forthcoming HBO series, “Barry,” he plays a hit man who decides to pursue an acting career. The conceit should allow Hader—who was a man of many faces on “Saturday Night Live”—to showcase his chameleonic gifts. James Davis, the creator of “Hood Adjacent with James Davis,” grew up in South Central L.A. and attended private school in Santa Monica. His show is not a sitcom; it’s a multimedia experiment that freely moves between forms (documentary shorts, parodic segments), just as he shuttled between worlds as a kid. Davis developed “Hood Adjacent” from his Snapchat series. Where the next great shows come from remains to be seen. —Sarah Larson













e cupped the two halves of my tush and spoke directly to them. “Run away with me, girls,” he whispered. “She doesn’t understand our love.” I lay still, staring out the window, letting them have their time together. If I protested, I’d only make his case stronger: I’m less fun than my own butt. Which is not untrue. In my essence, I am a stone, unmoving for ten thousand years, unless picked up and moved. It’s not just sex; I find this whole experience—life—gratuitously slow and drawn out. See it crawl, second by fucking second. If I’m a workaholic, it’s only because I hate work so much that I’m trying to finish it, all of it, once and for all. So I can just ride out the rest of my life in some kind of internal trance state. Not a coma but, like, a step above that. Our son, Sam, trotted in sleepily, and I warned him not to get in the bed: “It’s all bloody.” Alex quietly removed his hands from my body; he hadn’t noticed that I was bleeding. Sam pulled back the sheets and studied the mess, smiling giddily. “You got your period.” “Yes.” “You said it was coming soon and you were right!” “Yep.” This new generation of men has been taught (by me) to feel excited about the menstrual cycle. It’s like tadpoles turning into frogs or the moon that follows them wherever they go. I’ve been waiting a long time to have my period cheered on. More and more women my age have given up on our men and are getting together with millennials, youngsters raised by women who were born in the sixties, rather than the forties. I hear it’s great. Not a lot of hangups. But that isn’t an option for me because I need a man with a historical perspective that encompasses my whole lifetime. If anything, I regret not having met Alex sooner. If we had met at my birth and I had been able to assess how narcissistic my parents were, I could have left the hospital with Alex and got started on our relationship immediately. He would have been eight years old—young, but not too young to keep me alive. I need that in a man.


Sometimes my love for him is so intense that I want to crawl inside his body. I want him to be pregnant with me and never give birth, just hold me in. At other times, I wonder, Who is that guy? And why is he in my house? When I get that look on my face, he sticks out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Alex. Your husband.” Sam used his small pointing finger to tap each old bloodstain on the sheet; they dated back more than a decade, a disgusting constellation. It was one of those things you didn’t notice until suddenly you did. Like ants. Like everything.

and brushed my teeth. If Igotdressed I went to the mall immediately and a new sheet, then the chore wouldn’t have time to gather weight. Once a task goes on the to-do list it settles in, grows roots—the trick is to preëmpt that. I could get a tent light while I was there. We were going camping the next weekend with another family, although unfortunately I wasn’t sure I would be able to join. Too much work to do. “I can get new sheets,” Alex said, slowly climbing out of bed, limb by limb. Sam asked if we would be watching TV today, yes or no. “Not sheets—just one fitted sheet. There’s only one place that sells Cariloha-brand California-king sheets individually. What is it?” “Macy’s?” “Nope.” “Amazon?” “Definitely no. I told you about my bad experience—” “You did. I forgot.” Bedding is an unregulated corner of Amazon, where companies charge radically different prices for the same bad sheets. You can’t even get nicer sheets by paying more—money has no meaning there. And don’t bother typing in words like “Egyptian cotton” or “thread count”—you’re just offering them more precise ways to bamboozle you. Get up, find your keys and your purse, and go outside. I hate it as much as anyone, but sometimes you just have to. My plan was to park on the street and walk into the mall, get the sheet, and go. By not parking in the parking

garage, I would outwit the psychology of the mall designers who wanted you to sever ties with the outside world. But walking in off the street was disorienting. I entered through Bloomingdale’s and had to wade through the store; it was like pushing through coats to enter Narnia. Once I made it into the mall, I had no idea where I was. It took me a long time even to find a map, then I traced my finger back and forth between You Are Here and the Low Cost Luxury Sheets Kiosk to memorize my path. The man standing next to me took a picture of the map and then trekked on, studying his phone. Pretty clever. As I walked, I glanced sideways at his tan, brawny body and floppy brown hair, just to confirm. Yes. He was a famous person. An actor. Or maybe a hotelier. Maybe this was André Balazs or whatever his name was. No, an actor. Electricity revved through my veins for no particular reason, just as a courtesy to his stature. I kept an eye on him as I walked toward the sheet kiosk, bracing myself for the moment when he would peel off in another direction. But he didn’t; we continued walking alongside each other, and I began to feel that we were together. And he kept looking at me, out of the corner of his eye. This couldn’t be true but it was. Somewhere between BabyGap and Lady Foot Locker the tables had turned. Now he recognized me. twenty-two when the video was Igetwas shot. I needed quick money so I could out of a bad relationship—not a lot, just first and last and a security deposit. I couldn’t admit my plight to my parents, because I had already done this and they had written me a check, with great relief, and that was what my quasiabusive boyfriend and I had been living off for the past six months. He had come up with the ploy. “Make it sound bad but not too bad. Don’t say I hit you. Say I threw a chair at you or something.” “You did throw a chair at me.” “Obviously I wasn’t fully serious when I did that.” I felt obligated to stay until my parents’ money ran out, since asking for it had been his idea. Then he punched not my face but the wall right next to THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


my face and I had to move very quickly from terror to concern and rush him to the emergency room, where a young, temporary doctor said that we could either wait four hours for the real doctor to arrive and fix the bone in my boyfriend’s hand or let him “have a go.” The temporary doctor high-fived me after he’d popped the bone back in. The next morning, I woke up early and walked down to the cluster of newspaper boxes in front of the old people’s bar, and discreetly pulled out the sexthemed paper. I’d always known that this option would be there for me if I really needed it. Just as my parents were there if I really needed them, except for this one time. I chose the job that seemed to offer the most money for a one-time deal. I thought that they would shoot it in a hotel but it happened in an apartment, on an old couch. I wasn’t directed so much as given a series of props to make my way through, like an obstacle course. A turquoise Teddy bear, a pillow, an empty beer bottle, a metal bowl. Not everything was clear to me (the bowl), but I was too nervous to speak; I just laughed again and again to demonstrate consent. My biggest fear was that one of these men, the man with the lights or the cameraman, would misinterpret my nervousness and halt everything, shutting down the set on the ground that I was being objectified against my will. At that age, I assumed that everyone, deep down, was a feminist. So one had to be careful not to trigger feminism where one didn’t want it. I was waiting for a costume, something black and sexy or pink and trashy that would help catapult me out of myself. Instead, a man with a baseball cap, who was maybe the director, just said, “O.K., we’re rolling.” I was in shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals. I looked down at my shirt. It was from a sushi restaurant in my home town, but if you just glanced at it you might think it was racist, because of the fake Asian lettering. I imagined thousands of viewers waiting for this racist girl to get herself off. I quickly undressed and made a scissors gesture to the camera to indicate that this first part, the part with the racist shirt, should be cut. No one acknowledged this suggestion, so I 74


rubbed against the Teddy bear, and rode the big pillow. I held the bowl, uncertain, and then set it aside. I put the beer bottle into my vagina. With all this moving around, it was impossible to become even slightly turned on—back then I had to shut my eyes and make my body completely stiff to generate any feeling. But no one said anything until after I had heaved my last fake orgasmic sigh. “O.K., we got that,” a woman with a clipboard said. The man in the baseball cap gave me a firm nod, like a satisfied coach. I understood then that the five-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fee was not the price of my beauty or my sex appeal; it was my naïveté that I’d sold. Every person, no matter how plain, has one great erotic performance in her—the one in which she doesn’t know what she’s doing and is desperately trying to save her life. A second performance would be a copy of the first, which would require skills I didn’t have. My face wasn’t anywhere you could see it unless you entered a credit-card number and clicked past dozens of professionals—“college beauties,” “hot Korean girl,” and so on. But a few people made it through the gauntlet. The first time I was recognized was at a healthyMexican restaurant; a pale man in gym clothes stared at me for a long time before making a scissors gesture in the air. It was electrifying, as if all my clothes had fallen off at once. I looked away but there was no denying our intimacy; he’d come while watching me. The next one was a father with his family; he scissored his fingers down low, surreptitiously. The last was a butch lesbian teen-ager; she just walked right up to me and asked. Each time, I’d hurry home and enter my credit-card number, clicking quickly past the college beauties and the hot Korean girl. Though I’d felt nothing at the time, seeing myself through these people’s eyes was profound and overwhelming. I’d cry out with abandon; my body would shake and shiver as I came. Then I’d sleep, immediately, for at least two hours. The video shoot became the central sexual experience of my life; to this day, I can’t orgasm unless I imagine that I’m the pale man, the dad, or the young lesbian watching it, sometimes

all of them together, crowded around one computer screen. I’m them, I’m me, I’m them, I’m me, I come. I showed it to each boyfriend I had after that, to blow their minds but also to explain my sexual orientation; I was oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it. There was only one boyfriend I didn’t tell. He was a very classy man, emotionally speaking, and I didn’t want to give him any indication of basket-casery. After I married him, I kept meaning to bring it up, to draw him into the fold of my sexuality, such as it was. But I waited too long; we were so close now. And after the butch lesbian there was a lull, a seventeen-year lull, in which no one recognized me. arrived at the Luxury Sheets Kiosk Ibrown and the brawny man with floppy hair idled a few feet away, try-

ing to decide what to do. The scissoring gesture didn’t seem to occur to him. I ran my hand over the sheets while the cashier rang up a tall woman who kept adding one more thing. His eyes met mine, and I gave him a secret little smile. Truth is, I wanted to collapse with relief. Though a lot had happened in the past seventeen years— marriage, a child, my career—it was suddenly clear to me that I’d only been going through the motions, an exhausting simulation. I wasn’t a stone. I was one of life’s biggest fans, the best example of a living thing. The amateur sex video was like a seed I had planted in my youth; it would always sustain me. Not financially but by sending me these messengers when I was most in need. My blood moved around in my body; I felt the purpose of every muscle. I was ready to dance. And just then a beat began, so I rocked my hips and pressed my wrists together, swinging them like a girl in bondage who nonetheless wanted to party. The beat ended abruptly; it was the tall woman’s ringtone. “Hello?” she answered impatiently; she had enough going on with all these sheets. I couldn’t believe I’d danced to her ringtone. Maybe it was O.K. Who knows? Who can really see themselves? He was approaching. He was nearly beside me, his face open with surprise. I opened myself, too.

“You’re my neighbor,” he said. “In what sense?” I said, my eyes twinkling. “Well, in the sense that I live in the house next door to yours.” “The house on the corner?” “Yeah, it’s a duplex. We live in the apartment that faces Amador Street.” “Oh. Do you park on Amador?” I was bringing up parking just to hurt myself. I hated this conversation. “I park on Amador and my wife parks in the garage,” he said. “Although lately we’ve been trying to ride our scooters more. I’m Joel.” I thought about bringing up my husband, tit for tat, but I was too tired. The previous few seconds had taken everything out of me. We parted, saying that we would definitely see each other soon, ha-ha. I drove the long way around the block to avoid Amador Street on my way home. I parked and turned off the car. It was hot but I left my seat belt on, folded my hands in my lap, and took some slow breaths. Before Joel, I had still believed I could be recognized. Now I knew I was too old. How do you mourn that kind of loss? It just pulls your whole life down. My phone rang: Alex. “Are you home?” “Yes. I’m in the driveway.” “Yeah, we heard you drive up. You coming in?” “In a sec. I need to pour my heart out to someone so I can be empty and unburdened when I come inside.” I waited for him to say, “You can pour your heart out to me,” but he was quiet and we got off the phone. He never takes the bait. Which is good. It teaches me to be more direct in asking for what I need. Or does it? So far it hadn’t. We’d been tunnelling toward each other for years. It was hard work, but the assumption was that eventually our two tunnels would connect. We’d break through—Hallelujah! Clay-encrusted hands finally seizing each other!—and we would be together, really together, for the remaining time that we were alive. So long as we both dug as hard and as fast as we could, everything would work out. But, of course, neither of us knew for sure how the other person’s digging was going. One of us



might have been doggedly tunnelling toward the other person, while the other person was curling away in another direction. That person might not even have been aware of how off course he or she was. One of us might have tunnelled straight down for a few weeks, in anger, and then tried to get back on track, but now honestly had no idea where to go. We might break through— Hallelujah!—only to find that we were seizing the dirty hands of a stranger. What to do then? Or we might simply get tired, and stop digging, decide that here was good enough. All the while saying things like “We must be getting close!” and “I can’t wait until the day finally comes!” We might never meet up at all; we might die before it happened. Or worse: maybe there had never been any hope of our meeting up, because what was that even a metaphor for? Oneness? A child’s dream of love? I got out of the car and went inside, carrying the new fitted sheet and the tent light. he next weekend, I was unfortunately not able to go on the campT ing trip. I stood in the driveway and waved goodbye to Alex and Sam, tearful for no reason. Then I went inside and walked around the house, room by room, looking at all our stuff through the judgmental eyes of a monk or a nun. I did my work, very slowly, over the course of the day. At 8 p.m. I started watching TV and at 2 a.m. I turned out the light. Then the earthquake happened. I flew out of bed and moved down

the hallway like a person on a wobbly rope bridge. I lurched out the back door and along the side of the house to the sidewalk. The shaking stopped. The street lights were off, no moon. Car alarms were beeping in syncopation. A huge branch was draped across my car. Someone was standing on the corner, waving. It was Joel. I had successfully avoided interaction all week. Now I ran to him through the dark. “I didn’t get my shoes!” I yelled dum bly, as the pavement trembled again. Joel thought it was safest to stay outside; I thought so, too—less stuff to be trapped under if it fell. He called his wife, who was in Sun Valley, Idaho. I didn’t call Alex, since I was safe and a middle-of-the-night call is always alarming. Joel’s earthquake-survival kit was more elaborate than ours; we spread out high-tech blankets and pillows on the lawn on his side of the duplex and lay down, waiting for dawn. Once the car alarms had been silenced, the night was strangely quiet. The freeways were almost empty. Without the lights or the hum of cars, the sky took its place as the foremost thing. Joel and I stared up at it—an enormous gray arena we could fly around in just by lying there. “Looking at the sky should be a ride at Disneyland,” Joel said. This was such an accurate way to describe it. I thought about the accuracy for two or three minutes and then said, “Yeah.” We squinted at our houses

“At least she’s reading.”

in the dark and saw that they were leaning; they had shifted. I thought we’d probably move, rather than repair ours; Joel’s was a rental, so he said they’d move for sure. Maybe to Ireland. I said we’d probably move to Ireland, too. The chances seemed high that we would be neighbors again, in Ireland. We scooted toward each other, for warmth, and when I turned on my side Joel spooned me, very innocently. All bodies were good, I realized. Joel’s stocky form beside me was unfamiliar, but good. Hugging. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Hugging was so moving, so basic. Why had I ever taken pride in not being a “hugger”? Two people embracing was the very building block of life. “Hugging is the building block of life,” I whispered. Joel was quiet and this was exactly right; more words would just take away. I pressed my hand against the lawn, palming the whole earth like a gigantic basketball. Warm tears ran into the hair at my temple, one after another after another. Hello, stranger, I thought. And by “stranger” I meant not Joel but myself. My blood moved around in my body. I felt the purpose of every muscle. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t seen the video. hen I awoke, it was light out W and I was lying with the nextdoor neighbor on his lawn. I could tell right away that our houses were fine. It took only fifteen minutes to straighten up the books and the dishes that had fallen. The earthquake had been big, but no one was saying that it was “the big one.” When Alex and Sam got home, I told a story about hiding under the dining-room table. Our earthquake, the one that Joel and I had survived, was private. I friended him on Facebook the next day and we started e-mailing. Mostly we wrote about details from that night—the silence, the sky, how time had seemed to stretch out. I didn’t have any specific or adulterous plans; I was just wholly open. I saw us going on a road trip. Or maybe taking ayahuasca and throwing up in buckets. His penis was moving in and out of me most of the time. Sometimes I made it very small, like a finger, so that it wouldn’t distract me too much as I worked or emptied the dishwasher. Just a little thrusting tick-tock that

drowned out the real sound of time: 7 a.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., the most brutal of time’s representatives, but hardly the whole battalion. I was waiting for Joel’s response to my last e-mail when Alex and I stumbled on him, almost literally. We were coming home from a date night; Joel and his wife were lying on their lawn, staring up at the evening sky. They’d brought out the same pillows and blankets, and a bottle of wine. It was adorable in a way that people like us find cloying, so Alex raised his eyebrows at me before calling out to them. “Sorry! We usually park farther up but the trash cans are out.” “No, no,” Joel said, rising to his feet. “We’re good.” He swept his hand toward their reënactment. “It’s a lot more fun without all the shaking!” His wife raised her glass toward me and smiled; she knew the whole story. Alex nodded, cocking his head curiously in my direction. I stared at the familiar blue geometric pattern of the pillowcases. Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and plowed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me. I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it. Even after I acknowledged that I hadn’t hidden under the dining-room table as I said I had, Alex was still confused. We’d been reading in bed for less than thirty seconds when he started up with the questions again. “It’s just so unlike you. You hate camping.” “I know. It was an extreme situation.” “And you’ve never once said hi to the neighbors.” “And I still don’t want to! Joel is a completely uninteresting person.” This was now true again. I turned out my light. He left his light on and lay next to me, waiting. Leaving a space for my confession. I had done nothing. Nothing! My heart pounded nonetheless, the dumb beast. Just as I started to roll over, Alex turned to me and used his big hands to pull all my hair back, stretching my face into surprise. He held me like this, studying my posture of alarm, then let go abruptly and fell onto his back in frustration. We embarked on a silence. It grew and grew until it was a sort of god that we could only submit to. After

fifteen or twenty minutes I almost giggled—somebody say something!—and then I realized with horror that he was probably asleep. This wasn’t our silence; it was mine alone. I lay paralyzed as it hollowed and darkened, expanding in every direction with a familiar cruelty. Hello, stranger. Once, many years ago, Alex had saved me from this black hole with the kind of understanding that makes everything else in life possible. Even ingratitude. He shifted under the covers and I held my breath. If he was awake, I would tr y. If he was asleep, I would sleep, too, and probably forget to try, or forget that it mattered, or what I meant by try. Try to be brave. “Are you awake?” I whispered. “Wide awake.” I sat up and told the story of the video, starting with my quasi-abusive boyfriend and ending with meeting the neighbor twice. Alex was mostly quiet, only asking a few questions (“What was the bowl for?”). I left out the hugging and the e-mailing and the ticktocking tiny penis, but, still, when I was finished he silently walked out of the room. I took a breath and held it. I had made a terrible mistake. Why had I done this? My mind stopped, poised to shatter. Then he came back, holding his computer. He solemnly opened it in front of me, like a violin case before a maestro. I typed in the URL. The Web site looked a little different, but the major landmarks were still there. “You need a credit card to get to it.” He left and came back with his wallet. He typed in his credit-card number and I clicked around. I wasn’t sure where to go because the college beauties and the hot Korean girl were gone. It was all new girls. They looked extremely young. I scrolled in a daze. Brunette. Underage. Small tits. I stopped clicking. “When was the last time you saw it?” Alex said quietly. “I don’t know. I have it pretty memorized so I don’t need to. . . . Not since we’ve been together.” “Oh. I think they update . . . you know, just . . . for the viewers.”

It seemed obvious now that they wouldn’t still have a video from the nineties. “Yeah, of course. I just thought maybe they had a section for . . . alumni or . . . I don’t know.” I shut the computer. It was too bad. Really too bad. How bad? The consequences would be enormous, I felt. Alex was in the kitchen now, opening cupboards. He came back with a Teddy bear, an empty beer bottle, and a bowl. He picked up his pillow and pulled the comforter aside, arranging everything along the foot of the stripped bed. “I can’t re-create it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was true amateur porn, not fake.” “I understand—the real deal.” “The people who saw it . . . they were really overcome by it. It was their top video to watch, porn-wise.” As we talked, Alex seemed to be riding the pillow slightly, maybe unconsciously. “You’re talking about the pale man—” “The pale man, the dad, and the butch girl. Yes.” Now he was rubbing the Teddy bear against his crotch. He slid off his boxer shorts. Well. Well, now. I sat back. He was very much an amateur. He didn’t know what he was doing and he was desperately trying to save his life. I’d never seen him move his hips like that. It was funny, or no, actually not funny, just disorienting, slightly grotesque. He picked up the beer bottle, and, after a moment of honest hesitation, sucked its mouth and then—I reached under my nightgown—began slowly working it into himself. I had never wanted to see this, but I came immediately, and hard. He brought himself to the end of the show, manually. I held my breath, waiting for him to come on the new sheet. I’d have to wash it again. Who cares? I do. Just a little. Just enough to ruin each day. And then, with a swift and professional gesture, he grabbed the bowl and came into it. That was what the bowl was for. ♦ NEWYORKER.COM

Miranda July on the wild contradictions of marriage. THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017




THE FAKE-NEWS FALLACY Old fights about radio have lessons for new fights about the Internet. BY ADRIAN CHEN

Dock heard something terrifying on the radio. Aliens had landed just down the road, a newscaster announced, and were rampaging through the countryside. Dock grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and went out into the night, prepared to face down the invaders. But, after investigating, as a newspaper later reported, he “didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting.” In fact, he’d been duped by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Structured as a breaking-news report that detailed the invasion in real time, the broadcast adhered faithfully to the conventions of news radio, complete with elaborate sound effects and impersonations of government officials, with only a few brief warnings through the program that it was fiction. The next day, newspapers were full of stories like Dock’s. “Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123rd Street police station,” ready to evacuate, according to the Times. Two people suffered heart attacks from shock, the Washington Post reported. One caller from Pittsburgh claimed that he had barely prevented his wife from taking her own life by swallowing poison. The panic was the biggest story for weeks; a photograph of Bill Dock and his shotgun, taken the next day, by a Daily News reporter, went “the 1930s equivalent of viral,” A. Brad Schwartz writes in his recent history, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.” This early fake-news panic lives on in legend, but Schwartz is the latest of a number of researchers to argue that it 78


wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As Schwartz tells it, there was no mass hysteria, only small pockets of concern that quickly burned out. He casts doubt on whether Dock had even heard the broadcast. Schwartz argues that newspapers exaggerated the panic to better control the upstart medium of radio, which was becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the thirties. Newspapers wanted to show that radio was irresponsible and needed guidance from its older, more respectable siblings in the print media, such “guidance” mostly taking the form of lucrative licensing deals and increased ownership of local radio stations. Columnists and editorialists weighed in. Soon, the Columbia education professor and broadcaster Lyman Bryson declared that unrestrained radio was “one of the most dangerous elements in modern culture.” The argument turned on the role of the Federal Communications Commission, the regulators charged with insuring that the radio system served the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Unlike today’s F.C.C., which is known mainly as a referee for media mergers, the F.C.C. of the thirties was deeply concerned with the particulars of what broadcasters put in listeners’ ears—it had recently issued a reprimand after a racy Mae West sketch that so alarmed NBC it banned West from its stations. To some, the lesson of the panic was that the F.C.C. needed to take an even more active role to protect people from malicious tricksters like Welles. “Programs of that kind are an excellent indication of the inadequacy of our present control over a marvellous facility,” the Iowa senator Clyde Herring, a Democrat, declared. He announced a bill that would require broad-

casters to submit shows to the F.C.C. for review before airing. Yet Schwartz says that the people calling for a government crackdown were far outnumbered by those who warned against one. “Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize,” the renowned columnist Dorothy Thompson wrote. Thompson was concerned with a threat far greater than rogue thespians. Everywhere you looked in the thirties, authoritarian leaders were being swept to power with the help of radio. The Nazi Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda deployed a force called the Funkwarte, or Radio Guard, that went block by block to insure that citizens tuned in to Hitler’s major broadcast speeches, as Tim Wu details in his new book, “The Attention Merchants.” Meanwhile, homegrown radio demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin and the charismatic Huey Long made some people wonder about a radio-aided Fascist takeover in America. For Thompson, Welles had made an “admirable demonstration” about the power of radio. It showed the danger of handing control of the airwaves over to the state. “No political body must ever, under any circumstances, obtain a monopoly of radio,” she wrote. “The greatest organizers of mass hysterias and the mass delusions today are states using the radio to excite terrors, incite hatreds, inflame masses.” onald Trump’s victory has been a D demonstration, for many people, of how the Internet can be used to achieve those very ends. Trump used Twitter less as a communication device than as a weapon of information warfare, rallying


n the evening of October 30, 1938, O a seventy-six-year-old millworker in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, named Bill

Radio, in its early days, was seen as a means for spreading hysteria and hatred, just as the Internet is today. ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY



his supporters and attacking opponents with hundred-and-forty-character barrages. “I wouldn’t be here without Twitter,” he declared on Fox News in March. Yet the Internet didn’t just give him a megaphone. It also helped him peddle his lies through a profusion of unreliable media sources that undermined the old providers of established fact. Throughout the campaign, fake-news stories, conspiracy theories, and other forms of propaganda were reported to be flooding social networks. The stories were overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and the spread of whoppers like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”—hardly more believable than a Martian invasion—seemed to suggest that huge numbers of Trump supporters were being duped by online lies. This was not the first campaign to be marred by misinformation, of course. But the sheer outlandishness of the claims being made, and believed, suggested to many that the Internet had brought about a fundamental devaluing of the truth. Many pundits argued that the “hyper-democratizing” force of the Internet had helped usher in a “post-truth” world, where people based their opinions not on facts or reason but on passion and prejudice. Yet, even among this information anarchy, there remains an authority of sorts. Facebook and Google now define the experience of the Internet for most people, and in many ways they play the role of regulators. In the weeks after the election, they faced enormous criticism for their failure to halt the spread of fake news and misinformation on their services. The problem was not simply that people had been able to spread lies but that the digital platforms were set up in ways that made them especially potent. The “share” button sends lies flying around the Web faster than fact checkers can debunk them. The supposedly neutral platforms use personalized algorithms to feed us information based on precise data models of our preferences, trapping us in “filter bubbles” that cripple critical thinking and increase polarization. The threat of fake news was compounded by this sense that the role of the press had been ceded to an arcane algorithmic system created by private companies that care only about the bottom line. Not so very long ago, it was thought that the tension between commercial 80


pressure and the public interest would be one of the many things made obsolete by the Internet. In the mid-aughts, during the height of the Web 2.0 boom, the pundit Henry Jenkins declared that the Internet was creating a “participatory culture” where the top-down hegemony of greedy media corporations would be replaced by a horizontal network of amateur “prosumers” engaged in a wonderfully democratic exchange of information in cyberspace—an epistemic agora that would allow the whole globe to come together on a level playing field. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest attained their paradoxical gatekeeper status by positioning themselves as neutral platforms that unlocked the Internet’s democratic potential by empowering users. It was on a private platform, Twitter, where prodemocracy protesters organized, and on another private platform, Google, where the knowledge of a million public libraries could be accessed for free. These companies would develop into what the tech guru Jeff Jarvis termed “radically public companies,” which operate more like public utilities than like businesses. But there has been a growing sense among mostly liberal-minded observers that the platforms’ championing of openness is at odds with the public interest. The image of Arab Spring activists using Twitter to challenge repressive dictators has been replaced, in the public imagination, by that of ISIS propagandists luring vulnerable Western teen-agers to

Syria via YouTube videos and Facebook chats. The openness that was said to bring about a democratic revolution instead seems to have torn a hole in the social fabric. Today, online misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda are seen as the front line of a reactionary populist upsurge threatening liberal democracy. Once held back by democratic institutions, the bad stuff is now sluicing through a digital breach with the help of irresponsible tech companies.

Stanching the torrent of fake news has become a trial by which the digital giants can prove their commitment to democracy. The effort has reignited a debate over the role of mass communication that goes back to the early days of radio. he debate around radio at the time T of “The War of the Worlds” was informed by a similar fall from utopian hopes to dystopian fears. Although radio can seem like an unremarkable medium— audio wallpaper pasted over the most boring parts of your day—the historian David Goodman’s book “Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s” makes it clear that the birth of the technology brought about a communications revolution comparable to that of the Internet. For the first time, radio allowed a mass audience to experience the same thing simultaneously from the comfort of their homes. Early radio pioneers imagined that this unprecedented blurring of public and private space might become a sort of ethereal forum that would uplift the nation, from the urban slum dweller to the remote Montana rancher. John Dewey called radio “the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen.” Populist reformers demanded that radio be treated as a common carrier and give airtime to anyone who paid a fee. Were this to have come about, it would have been very much like the early online-bulletin-board systems where strangers could come together and leave a message for any passing online wanderer. Instead, in the regulatory struggles of the twenties and thirties, the commercial networks won out. Corporate networks were supported by advertising, and what many progressives had envisaged as the ideal democratic forum began to seem more like Times Square, cluttered with ads for soap and coffee. Rather than elevating public opinion, advertisers pioneered techniques of manipulating it. Who else might be able to exploit such techniques? Many saw a link between the domestic on-air advertising boom and the rise of Fascist dictators like Hitler abroad. Tim Wu cites the leftist critic Max Lerner, who lamented that “the most damning blow the dictatorships have struck at democracy has been the compliment they have paid us in taking over and perfecting our

prized techniques of persuasion and our underlying contempt for the credulity of the masses.” Amid such concerns, broadcasters were under intense pressure to show that they were not turning listeners into a zombified mass ripe for the Fascist picking. What they developed in response is, in Goodman’s phrase, a “civic paradigm”: radio would create active, rational, tolerant listeners—in other words, the ideal citizens of a democratic society. Classicalmusic-appreciation shows were developed with an eye toward uplift. Inspired by progressive educators, radio networks hosted “forum” programs, in which citizens from all walks of life were invited to discuss the matters of the day, with the aim of inspiring tolerance and political engagement. One such program, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” featured in its first episode a Communist, a Fascist, a Socialist, and a democrat. Listening to the radio, then, would be a “civic practice” that could create a more democratic society by exposing people to diversity. But only if they listened correctly. There was great concern about distracted and gullible listeners being susceptible to propagandists. A group of progressive journalists and thinkers known as “propaganda critics” set about educating radio listeners. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, cofounded by the social psychologist Clyde R. Miller, with funding from the department-store magnate Edward Filene, was at the forefront of the movement. In newsletters, books, and lectures, the institute’s members urged listeners to attend to their own biases while analyzing broadcast voices for signs of manipulation. Listening to the radio critically became the duty of every responsible citizen. Goodman, who is generally sympathetic to the proponents of the civic paradigm, is alert to the off notes here of snobbery and disdain: much of the progressive concern about listeners’ abilities stemmed from the belief that Americans were, basically, dim-witted— an idea that gained currency after intelligence tests on soldiers during the First World War supposedly revealed discouraging news about the capacities of the average American. In the wake of “The War of the Worlds” panic, commentators didn’t hesitate to rail against “idiotic” and “stupid” listeners. Welles and his crew,

Dorothy Thompson declared, “have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.” oday, when we speak about people’s T relationship to the Internet, we tend to adopt the nonjudgmental language of computer science. Fake news was described as a “virus” spreading among users who have been “exposed” to online misinformation. The proposed solutions to the fake-news problem typically resemble antivirus programs: their aim is to identify and quarantine all the dangerous nonfacts throughout the Web before they can infect their prospective hosts. One venture capitalist, writing on the tech blog Venture Beat, imagined deploying artificial intelligence as a “media cop,” protecting users from malicious content. “Imagine a world where every article could be assessed based on its level of sound discourse,” he wrote. The vision here was of the news consumers of the future turning the discourse setting on their browser up to eleven and soaking in pure fact. It’s possible, though, that this approach comes with its own form of myopia. Neil Postman, writing a couple of decades ago, warned of a growing tendency to view people as computers, and a corresponding devaluation of the “singular human capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions.” A person does not process information the way a computer does, flipping a switch of “true” or “false.” One rarely cited Pew statistic shows that only four per cent of American Internet users trust social media “a lot,” which suggests a greater resilience against online misinformation than overheated editorials might lead us to expect. Most people seem to understand that their socialmedia streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment. You might see this as a problem, but turning to Big Data-driven algorithms to fix it will only further entrench our reliance on code to tell us what is important about the world— which is what led to the problem in the first place. Plus, it doesn’t sound very fun. The various efforts to fact-check and label and blacklist and sort all the world’s information bring to mind a quote, which appears in David Goodman’s book, from John Grierson, a documentary filmmaker: “Men don’t live by bread alone, nor by THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017


¥ fact alone.” In the nineteen-forties, Grierson was on an F.C.C. panel that had been convened to determine how best to encourage a democratic radio, and he was frustrated by a draft report that reflected his fellow-panelists’ obsession with filling the airwaves with rationality and fact. Grierson said, “Much of this entertainment is the folk stuff . . . of our technological time; the patterns of observation, of humor, of fancy, which make a technological society a human society.” In recent times, Donald Trump supporters are the ones who have most effectively applied Grierson’s insight to the digital age. Young Trump enthusiasts turned Internet trolling into a potent political tool, deploying the “folk stuff ” of the Web—memes, slang, the nihilistic humor of a certain subculture of Webnative gamer—to give a subversive, cyberpunk sheen to a movement that might otherwise look like a stale reactionary blend of white nationalism and antifeminism. As crusaders against fake news push technology companies to “defend the truth,” they face a backlash from a conservative movement, retooled for the 82


¥ digital age, which sees claims for objectivity as a smoke screen for bias. One sign of this development came last summer, in the scandal over Facebook’s “Trending” sidebar, in which curators chose stories to feature on the user’s home page. When the tech Web site Gizmodo reported the claim of an anonymous employee that the curators were systematically suppressing conservative news stories, the right-wing blogosphere exploded. Breitbart, the far-right torchbearer, uncovered the social-media accounts of some of the employees—liberal recent college graduates—that seemed to confirm the suspicion of pervasive anti-right bias. Eventually, Facebook fired the team and retooled the feature, calling in high-profile conservatives for a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. Although Facebook denied that there was any systematic suppression of conservative views, the outcry was enough to reverse a tiny first step it had taken toward introducing human judgment into the algorithmic machine. For conservatives, the rise of online gatekeepers may be a blessing in disguise.

Throwing the charge of “liberal media bias” against powerful institutions has always provided an energizing force for the conservative movement, as the historian Nicole Hemmer shows in her new book, “Messengers of the Right.” Instead of focussing on ideas, Hemmer focusses on the galvanizing struggle over the means of distributing those ideas. The first modern conservatives were members of the America First movement, who found their isolationist views marginalized in the lead-up to the Second World War and vowed to fight back by forming the first conservative media outlets. A “vague claim of exclusion” sharpened into a “powerful and effective ideological arrow in the conservative quiver,” Hemmer argues, through battles that conservative radio broadcasters had with the F.C.C. in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Their main obstacle was the F.C.C.’s Fairness Doctrine, which sought to protect public discourse by requiring controversial opinions to be balanced by opposing viewpoints. Since attacks on the mid-century liberal consensus were inherently controversial, conservatives found themselves constantly in regulators’ sights. In 1961, a watershed moment occurred with the leak of a memo from labor leaders to the Kennedy Administration which suggested using the Fairness Doctrine to suppress right-wing viewpoints. To many conservatives, the memo proved the existence of the vast conspiracy they had long suspected. A fund-raising letter for a prominent conservative radio show railed against the doctrine, calling it “the most dastardly collateral attack on freedom of speech in the history of the country.” Thus was born the character of the persecuted truthteller standing up to a tyrannical government—a trope on which a billion-dollar conservative-media juggernaut has been built. Today, Facebook and Google have taken the place of the F.C.C. in the conservative imagination. Conservative bloggers highlight the support that Jack Dorsey, the C.E.O. of Twitter, has expressed for Black Lives Matter, and the frequent visits that Google’s Eric Schmidt made to the Obama White House. When Facebook announced that it was partnering with a group of fact checkers from the nonprofit Poynter Institute to flag false news stories, conservatives saw another effort to censor them under the

guise of objectivity. Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative media-watchdog group Media Research Center, cited the fact that Poynter received funding from the liberal financier George Soros. “Just like George Soros and company underwrote the Fairness Doctrine several years ago,” he said, “this is about going after conservative talk on the Internet and banning it by somehow projecting it as being false.” One lesson you get from Hemmer’s research is that the conservative skepticism of gatekeepers is not without a historical basis. The Fairness Doctrine really was used by liberal groups to silence conservatives, typically by flooding stations with complaints and requests for airtime to respond. This created a chilling effect, with stations often choosing to avoid controversial material. The technical fixes implemented by Google and Facebook in the rush to fight fake news seem equally open to abuse, dependent, as they are, on user-generated reports. Yet today, with a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine dedicated to publicizing any hint of liberal bias, conservatives aren’t the ones who have the most to fear. As Facebook has become an increasingly important venue for activists documenting police abuse, many of them have complained that overzealous censors routinely block their posts. A recent report by the investigative nonprofit ProPublica shows how anti-racist activism can often fall afoul of Facebook rules against offensive material, while a post by the Louisiana representative Clay Higgins calling for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims was deemed acceptable. In 2016, a group of civil-rights activists wrote Facebook to demand that steps be taken to insure that the platform could be used by marginalized people and social movements organizing for change. There was no high-profile meeting with Zuckerberg, only a form letter outlining Facebook’s moderation practices. The wishful story about how the Internet was creating a hyper-democratic “participatory culture” obscures the ways in which it is biased in favor of power. he online tumult of the 2016 elecT tion fed into a growing suspicion of Silicon Valley’s dominance over the public sphere. Across the political spectrum, people have become less trusting of the

Big Tech companies that govern most online political expression. Calls for civic responsibility on the part of Silicon Valley companies have replaced the hope that technological innovation alone might bring about a democratic revolution. Despite the focus on algorithms, A.I., filter bubbles, and Big Data, these questions are political as much as technical. Regulation has become an increasingly popular notion; the Democratic senator Cory Booker has called for greater antitrust scrutiny of Google and Facebook, while Stephen Bannon reportedly wants to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities. In the nineteen-thirties, such threats encouraged commercial broadcasters to adopt the civic paradigm. In that prewar era, advocates of democratic radio were united by a progressive vision of pluralism and rationality; today, the question of how to fashion a democratic social media is one more front in our highly divisive culture wars. Still, Silicon Valley isn’t taking any chances. In the wake of the recent, deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a slew of tech companies banned the neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer, essentially blacklisting it from the Web. Responding so directly to appeals to decency and justice that followed the tragedy, these companies positioned themselves less as neutral platforms than as custodians of the public interest. Zuckerberg recently posted a fiftyseven-hundred-word manifesto announcing a new mission for Facebook that goes beyond the neutral-seeming mandate to “make the world more open and connected.” Henceforth, Facebook would seek to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” The manifesto was so heavy on themes of civic responsibility that many took it as a blueprint for a future political campaign. Speculation has only grown since Zuckerberg embarked on a fifty-state tour this summer to meet American Facebook users, posting photos of himself with livestock and unhealthy local delicacies. Those who think that Zuckerberg is preparing for a Presidential bid, however, should consider the emerging vectors of power in the digital era: for the man who runs Facebook, the White House might well look like a step down.  THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



VOICES FROM THE VOID A new version of Fernando Pessoa’s self-effacing masterpiece. BY ADAM KIRSCH

into a cosmos, the expansive power of Pessoa’s imagination turned out to need very little raw material to work with. Indeed, he belongs to a distinguished line of European writers, from Giacomo Leopardi, in the early nineteenth century, to Samuel Beckett, in the twentieth, for whom nullity was a muse. The ultimate futility of all accomplishment, the fascination of loneliness, the way sorrow colors our perception of the world: Pessoa’s insight into his favorite themes was purchased at a high price, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “To find one’s personality by losing it—faith itself subscribes to that sense of destiny,” he wrote. he facts of Pessoa’s destiny are T briefly told. Born in Lisbon in 1888, he moved to South Africa at the

“The Book of Disquiet” was found, in fragments, only after Pessoa’s death. f ever there was a writer in flight IPessoa. from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.” In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked 84


on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.” This might sound like an unpromising basis for a body of creative work that is now considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century. If a writer is nothing, does nothing, and has nothing to say, what can he write about? But, like the big bang, which took next to nothing and turned it

age of seven, when his stepfather was appointed Portuguese consul in Durban. He excelled at English, winning prizes for his school essays, and wrote English verse throughout his life. In 1905, he moved back to Lisbon to study at the university there. After two years, however, a student strike shut down the campus, and Pessoa dropped out. For the rest of his life, he devoted himself to reading and writing while supporting himself as a freelance translator of business correspondence. He never married, and while biographers speculate about his sexuality—“I was never one who in love or friendship / Preferred one sex over the other,” he writes in one poem—it is possible that he died a virgin. He was involved in several literary enterprises, including a famous magazine, Orpheu, which, though it ran for only two issues, is considered responsible for introducing modernism to Portugal. He published just one book during his lifetime—“Message,” a collection of poems inspired by Portuguese history, which appeared in 1934. He was a familiar figure in Lisbon’s literary world, but when he died, in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, he had no major achievements to his name. It might well have seemed that he had had “a history without a life.” But Pessoa was to have an extraordinary afterlife, as he prophesied in ILLUSTRATION BY RICCARDO VECCHIO

his poem “If I Die Young”: “roots may be hidden in the ground / But their flowers flower in the open air for all to see. / It must be so. Nothing can prevent it.” Among his belongings when he died was a large trunk, containing more than twenty-five thousand manuscript pages—the product of a lifetime of nearly graphomaniacal productivity. As Richard Zenith, one of his leading English translators, has written, Pessoa composed “on loose sheets, in notebooks, on stationery from the firms where he worked, on the backs of letters, on envelopes, or on whatever scrap of paper happened to be in reach.” This cache of documents, which now resides in Portugal’s National Library, contained enough masterpieces to make Pessoa the greatest Portuguese poet of his century—indeed, probably the greatest since Luís de Camões, the sixteenth-century author of the country’s national epic, “The Lusiads.” Among the papers, too, were the hundreds of entries that make up “The Book of Disquiet”—but in no particular order, leaving successive editors to impose their own vision on the work. The first publication of the book was in 1982, nearly fifty years after Pessoa’s death. A newly published English translation, by Margaret Jull Costa, is called “The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition” (New Directions), and it is based on a Portuguese edition by Jerónimo Pizarro, which came out in 2013. This was the first version that attempted to put all the entries in chronological order, as best as can be established from Pessoa’s dating and other sources. In addition to the size and the disorder of the Pessoa archive, there is another confounding level of complexity: it is, in a sense, the work of many writers. In his manuscripts, and even in personal correspondence, Pessoa attributed much of his best writing to various fictional alter egos, which he called “heteronyms.” Scholars have tabulated as many as seventytwo of these. His love of invented names began early: at the age of six, he wrote letters under the French name Chevalier de Pas, and soon moved on to English personae such as Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon.

But the major heteronyms he used in his mature work were more than jokey code names. They were fully fledged characters, endowed with their own biographies, philosophies, and literary styles. Pessoa even imagined encounters among them, and allowed them to comment on one another’s work. If he was empty, as he liked to claim, it was not the emptiness of a void but of a stage, where these selves could meet and interact.

And then there is Caeiro, who is said to have died of tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. Revered by the other heteronyms as their “Master,” he wrote plainspoken poems that eschew abstract thought and cleave to the natural world, in an almost Zen spirit of wisdom:

n Pessoa’s poetry, three heteronyms Ipoems were crucial. In addition to the he signed with his own name,

For many readers, the heteronyms, with their complicated mythology, are a large part of Pessoa’s appeal; other readers might consider them an unnecessary and cumbersome apparatus. But they are undoubtedly one of the elements that mark him as a supreme modernist. This was a generation of poets that believed in what Oscar Wilde called “the truth of masks.” T. S. Eliot, who was never more Eliotic than when he was J. Alfred Prufrock, has a particular kinship with Pessoa. Born just months apart, both poets had a fondness for dandyism, a contempt for the ordinary, a principled attachment to impersonality, and a tendency to cherish unhappiness. Pessoa, however, went beyond masking to a kind of deliberate dissociation. In a section of “The Book of Disquiet” titled “How to Dream Metaphysics,” he prescribes a method for dissolving consciousness, which in its rigor resembles a manual on self-hypnosis, or a set of religious exercises. First comes the reading of novels, which trains you to care more about a fictional world than about the real one. Then comes the ability to physically feel what you imagine— for instance, “the sensualist” should be able to “experience an ejaculation when such a moment occurs in his novel.” Finally, after several more stages, comes what Pessoa calls “the highest stage of dreaming”: “Having created a cast of characters, we live them all, at the same time—we are all those souls jointly and interactively.” This, of course, is what he achieved, and if, on one side, it sounds like self-abnegation, on another side it resembles self-worship: “I am God,” the entry concludes. After all, if your

he wrote as Alberto Caeiro, an untutored child of nature; as Ricardo Reis, a melancholic doctor dedicated to classical forms and themes; and as Alvaro de Campos, a naval engineer and world traveller who was a devotee of Walt Whitman. Each of these personae was assigned a date of birth within a few years of Pessoa’s own, and their mythologies were intertwined: Pessoa once wrote a passage in which Campos explains how Reis was fundamentally transformed by listening to a reading by Caeiro. Ordinarily, we expect important poets to have a distinctive style, a way of writing that identifies them as surely as a painter is identified by his brushstroke. But the subdivision of his selves allowed Pessoa to have at least four such styles at once. Writing under his own name, Pessoa is terse, metaphysical, sentimental: I contemplate the silent pond Whose water is stirred by a breeze. Am I thinking about everything, Or has everything forgotten me?

Reis, meanwhile, sounds like Horace or Catullus, dwelling on the fleetingness of life and love in disciplined stanzas: As if each kiss Were a kiss of farewell, Let us lovingly kiss, my Chloe.

Campos, at the opposite extreme, is an excitable futurist, glorying in the power and the speed of the modern: Pantheistic rage of awesomely feeling With all my senses fizzing and all my pores fuming That everything is but one speed, one energy, one divine line From and to itself, arrested and murmuring furies of mad speed.

I thank God I’m not good But have the natural egoism of flowers And rivers that follow their path Unwittingly preoccupied With only their flowering and their flowing.



imagination is so powerful that it can people the world, then there is no need for the existence of actual people. his kind of solipsism was a great T temptation for Pessoa, as “The Book of Disquiet” reveals. The material that he marked for inclusion in the book was written in two phases, each with its own heteronym, separate from the four characters who dominate his poetry. During the first phase, from 1913 to 1920, he attributed the work to Vicente Guedes, whom he describes in an introductory vignette as “a man in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unself-conscious negligence.” The passage goes on to describe Guedes’s austerity, melancholy, intelligence, and seeming insignificance—all qualities that he shared, of course, with his creator. Thus, when Pessoa describes “The Book of Disquiet” as “the autobiography of someone who never existed,” he is simultaneously telling a factual truth (there was no such person as Guedes) and making a poetic confession: he himself never lived what the world considers a full life. During the nineteen-twenties, Pessoa set the book aside, turning his attention to poetry and indulging a lifelong fascination with occultism and astrology. When he returned to it, in 1929, he had reimagined its author. Now it was to be the work of Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in a Lisbon fabric company. Soares, too, is spiritually akin to Pessoa: indeed, Pessoa wrote that he was only a “semiheteronym,” because “his personality, though not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.” Soares is a more fully imagined character than his predecessor, Guedes. He makes observations about his neighborhood of Baixa, his workplace in the Rua dos Douradores, and his boss, Vasques, in a way that gives the second phase of the book a more novelistic feeling. Indeed, the Penguin Classics edition of “The Book of Disquiet,” edited by Richard Zenith, places a number of these passages near the beginning, smoothing the reader’s entry with a kind of miniature narrative. 86


The chronological method of the new edition precludes any kind of thematic organization, and the result is a book that is less approachable than its predecessor. This is partly because it opens with the weakest material, which dates from when Pessoa was a twentyfive-year-old heavily under the influence of French Symbolism and the Decadent Movement, of the eighteennineties. (Portugal seems to have been about a generation behind the literary mean time of Paris and London.) “My soul is a hidden orchestra,” the first entry reads. “I do not know what instruments, what violins and harps, drums and tambours sound and clash inside me. I know myself only as a symphony.” This passage sets the tone for the florid prose poetry that dominates the first part of the work. Some entries have ponderous titles, such as “Litany of Despair” or “An Aesthetics of Abdication.” Others consist of impressionistic sketches of skies and landscapes, as in “Rainy Day”: “The air is a concealed yellow, like a pale yellow seen through a grubby white.” There are perverse reveries about nameless women who are half Virgin Mary, half Belle Dame Sans Merci: “You are the only form that does not radiate tedium, because you change with our feelings, because, in kissing our joy, you cradle our grief and tedium, you are the opium that comforts and the sleep that brings rest, and the death that gently folds our hands on our breast.” If this were all that “The Book of Disquiet” contained, it would not be a modern masterpiece but a time capsule. Still, it was from the late-nineteenth-century cult of decadence that the first seeds of modernism germinated; and in Pessoa the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth is fascinatingly visible. Decadence was founded on an impertinent reversal of the values of the time: in place of hard work and moral earnestness, writers like Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans elevated imaginative indolence and provocative paradox. For the young Pessoa, this message resonated, since it turned his own tendency toward hesitation and withdrawal into an artistic virtue. “I never try too hard,” he writes

in a 1915 entry. “Fortune, if it so wishes, may come and find me. I know all too well that my greatest efforts will never meet with the success that others enjoy.” As he grew older, however, and particularly once he returned to “The Book of Disquiet” in his forties, Pessoa fashioned this literary pose into something more serious and sharp-edged. It became a kind of metaphysical nihilism, in which the great truth the artist had to communicate was that nothing matters. Crucial to this shift was the decision to drop Guedes, with his rhetorical grandeur, and speak through Soares, who lacks glamour of any kind. Indeed, with his shabby rented room and his boring, repetitive job, Soares is as ordinary as can be—the kind of person an aesthete would recoil from, or simply not notice. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot saw crowds of people like Soares flowing over London Bridge and considered them as already dead: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” or Pessoa, however, the ultimate paradox is that it is precisely this living F death that offers the best vantage point on human existence. If you had to describe Soares in one word, it would be “undeceived”: because he wants nothing, he can see through everything. “Yes, that’s what tedium is: the loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself,” Pessoa writes. Among the things that fail to impress him in “The Book of Disquiet” are travel (“The idea of travelling makes me feel physically sick”), politics (“All revolutionaries are as stupid as all reformers”), and love (“I’ve had neither the patience nor the concentration of mind to want to make that effort”). History is conspicuously absent from Pessoa’s work: though he lived through the First World War, and a series of political crises in Portugal that resulted in the establishment of a Fascist regime, he rigorously excludes such matters from his consideration. He seems at his happiest simply observing the weather, and many entries include quiet descriptions of the sun and sky, the rain and clouds. This indifferentism is hard to reconcile with the effort and the artistry that Pessoa devoted to his work. If nothing is worth doing, why write twenty-five thousand pages? At times,

he suggests that thinking and writing are simply a way of killing time—an occupation for the mind the way crocheting is for the hands, as he says in his poem “Impassively”: I also have my crochet. It dates from when I began to think. Stitch on stitch forming a whole without a whole . . . A cloth, and I don’t know if it’s for a garment or nothing.

If thinking is considered the mere absence of activity, then it might well look like a repudiation of life, and “The Book of Disquiet” is shot through with expressions of boredom, regret, and despair. At the same time, however, Pessoa is convinced that thinking is the greatest of adventures, far superior to any possible action. Indeed, since we never have access to the world except through our private perceptions and ideas, action in the world is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Why do things when you can imagine them? In this way, Soares the clerk turns out to be the ultimate aristocrat, who has no need of things like accomplishment and status, because he considers himself infinitely superior to them. “The higher a man rises up the scale, the more things he must relinquish. On the mountain peak there is only room for that man alone,” Soares says, sounding rather like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Writing is both the reason for and the proof of this superiority: “Literature . . . seems to me the goal towards which all human effort should be directed.” In its alternations between selfloathing and self-exaltation, “The Book of Disquiet” can seem like a quintessentially manic-depressive epic. Pessoa’s achievement, deliberate or inadvertent, is to show how the roots of a certain kind of misery lie in solipsism—the belief that nothing outside the self really matters, so that the mind can never be truly affected by what it experiences. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation,” he writes in the final entry. “If you cannot live alone, then you were born a slave.” But even Pessoa, finally, could not live alone; he kept himself company by inventing his heteronyms, which, unlike actual people, would always remain under his control. Only death could free them— and him—from his imagination’s all too powerful grip. 

BRIEFLY NOTED Where the Line Is Drawn, by Raja Shehadeh (New Press). A Palestinian human-rights lawyer who has written several books about life under the Israeli occupation here focusses on his friendships with Israeli Jews, in particular with the Jung scholar Henry Abramovitch. “I was looking for solace in the midst of the chaos all around, and I found it with Henry,” he writes. Over forty years, their friendship has been nurtured through letters, conversations in the Ramallah hills, and, initially, a studious avoidance of politics. Yet increasingly hopeless national politics, intractable identity narratives, and the quotidian humiliations of the occupation come to affect the assumptions and the expectations of friendship. Shehadeh describes with courage and grace the internal struggle to remain fair. Henry David Thoreau, by Laura Dassow Walls (Chicago). This lucid biography presents a warmer and more socially engaged Thoreau, devoted to his friends and family and fond of belting out sea shanties at parties. He led boating and berrying expeditions, and brought home flowers to decorate his family’s house. As a teacher, bucking common practice, he rejected corporal punishment, and took students on field trips, often to his treasured woods. His two-year sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond was, Walls argues, a kind of “performance art.” Far from becoming the hermit of popular imagination, Thoreau used the experiment to transform himself into “a new kind of being, that product of modern commerce and communications: a celebrity.” Blameless, by Claudio Magris, translated from the Italian by

Anne Milano Appel (Yale). A museum “dedicated to the documentation of war for the promotion of peace” lies at the center of this remarkable novel. It was the project of an obsessive collector of war paraphernalia, who burned to death in a warehouse holding much of his collection. The task of seeing the idea to fruition falls to his designated curator, and the novel toggles between the story of her family’s experience of war in Europe and a meticulous cataloguing of the collection’s grim holdings. The book comes most alive in bravura set pieces, such as the tale of a bow and an axe belonging to a Chamacoco Indian who was brought from Paraguay to Prague for medical treatment. The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (Custom House). This novel

offers a sideways look at the Victorian age through the story of a woman who, liberated by widowhood from a ghastly marriage, sets out to join the male-dominated ranks of eminent natural historians. After hearing rumors of a sea monster lurking near an English village, she and a group of friends embark on a series of adventures, arguments, and philosophical discussions. In keeping with the period, Darwinism and tuberculosis figure prominently, and the letters studding the novel call to mind the fun and the melodrama of “Dracula.” Still, beneath their greatcoats, Perry’s Victorians are rather contemporary—chatty, lusting, and preoccupied with the virtual intimacy of messages. THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



MERRY WAR Ange Mlinko’s poetry of play. BY DAN CHIASSON

he American poet Ange Mlinko’s T fifth book is “Distant Mandate” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her title, bor-

It turns out that there is a River Styx south of Gainesville, Florida, where the cottonmouth is a native predator. (Mlinko teaches in Gainesville, at the University of Florida.) The anvil, an inescapable judgment precariously suspended, comes courtesy of Hesiod and the Road Run-

“Cottonmouth” is this book’s primal scene, where matched wits skirmish in a “by the book” crisis of their own making. Mlinko’s volume aches with pain, but its tone sometimes suggests the screwball comedy or “merry war” of Shakespearean lovers. Beatrice and Benedick, the quintessential lovestruck smartalecks, appear in “Knot Garden,” the play on “knot” implying that these two will, in the end, “try” but not tie one: Like Beatrice and Benedick, I thought— As we went around the garden trying, with words, a precarious knot.

rowing a phrase from the writer László Krasznahorkai, refers to art’s primum This is the equipoise of a will-they, mobile, its primordial first domino. The won’t-they pair who believe that by drive to create art is a “mandate” so ancient that it should probably by Act V they will. As the poem unnow have expired, and yet when it folds, though, the phrase “like Beatrice and Benedick” starts to sound arrives, still, it is always in a hurry. Mlinko’s readers can easily spot shakier and shakier, an analogy the wit, the elegance, and the play asserted nervously by Beatrice as in her poems, but they might miss her Benedick drifts into abstraction. With his head in the stars, the urgency, since it is so slyly channelled. “Distant Mandate” is partly he won’t, in the end, look his acabout the binds of middle age, complice in the eye: when one’s obligations compete, Millions or billions don’t mean like a nest of hungry robins, for atbliss: tention. Mlinko’s poems aren’t simthink cotillions when you speak of stars ple: they face the complexities of like Benedick and Beatrice love and loss with a pragmatic erudition. She is a difficult, alluand not the prestidigitatory not. sive, dense poet, haunted by myth and by language. But she is also, I love that “cotillions,” which in almost every line, funny, poisuggests a young, vulnerable pergnant, and self-impugning, meason’s idea of majesty and rebirth, suring her pinprick dramas against as against the armored cosmic the cosmos. prattle of her noncompliant “Distant Mandate” opens with knight. “Cottonmouth,” a venomous poem istant Mandate” is partly about seduction that recalls both about the dangers lurking the snake that bit Eurydice and in language itself, which poets, as the unpleasant aftereffect of get- A polished, gregarious wit guides Mlinko’s work. ting high. The poem is in terza their signal form of courage, aprima, Dante’s pirouetting form, which ner; the “bucolics” are Virgil’s poem of proach on bared foot. (Frost intended suggests tentative progress checked by that name, plus the day-tripping lovers the pun when he defined poetry as “feats partial reversal. In the Inferno, as here, who see themselves in it. Art imitates of association.”) Mlinko’s poems are set the form provides the necessary gut check life imitating art: “boustrophedon” de- all over, from Galveston to Marrakech, when traversing a darkened region loud scribes the path that a plow takes as it Cyprus to Crown Heights, and many with disembodied voices. Here is the po- moves back and forth in a field, the same points in between. Her extraordinary serpentine path followed by rivers and wit, monitoring its own excesses, is her em’s opening: by classical manuscripts that alternate compass. A dark drive across South A levitating anvil. Omen of seagull Blown inland. Ranch gate said RIVERSTYX, between left-right and right-left lines Carolina gives the imagination somebut it was the woodland that looked lethal: of text. Soon, our contemporary Eury- thing to do: “a plank of reflective dashes” no place to put down your foot. Bucolics dice in the wrong footwear makes the and “the stink of brine like diesel” mean demand boustrophedon. The by-the-book. momentous decision to “shed her red that we’re reading a poem about driv“Male cicadas thrummed their stomachs wedge / with its Mary Jane band.” Or- ing on a bridge. (The phrase about while a dragonfly eyed us from a pole hook. pheus, who knows how the story ends, “dashes” is surrounded by, you guessed Ripening grapefruit. Us just under. Shoulder to shoulder. Tree shook.” steps in to mansplain her error. it, dashes.) The layer of language and





metaphor clings, as always in these poems, to the environment they describe. In a contemporary Cupid and Psyche poem, “Epic” (borrowing from James Merrill’s great work “From the Cupola,” which itself borrowed from Keats), Psyche, enthralled by a lover who comes and goes as he pleases, “wanders through Arcadia,” a darkened Prospect Park lush with vocabulary: Pillowy undulations, earachy echo chamber of bandstand and stadia, craquelure of dry fountains, stark contrast to “wellsprings of hope.”

Back on the city streets, the “combinatorics of sidewalk and subway” and the “forbidden geometry” of apartment buildings yield to reality: “from arabesque and pentacle and hexagon” we arrive, at last, at the “3-D” Airbnbs—actual, habitable versions of the places we imagined or glimpsed on a screen. Anyone reading Mlinko needs a refresher course on the meanings of “craquelure” and “combinatorics” and many other words that would not be out of place in Wallace Stevens’s “Harmonium,” a strong forebear of Mlinko’s style. I read Mlinko with my phone at the ready: Googling wildly, I must look as if I were day-trading or refreshing Twitter. And yet this work has more in common with the gregarious poems of Frank O’Hara than with the rarefied art pieces of early Merrill or Anthony Hecht. A writer with a big vocabulary and lots of learning can be spontaneous, too. You don’t deposit “Mary Jane” into a poem called “Cottonmouth” by arthroscopic surgery. You find it in the moment, use it, and move on. In a poem set mostly at the Houston Opera, “In the Gods,” “play” refers both to an oil-rich field and to the performance of Wagner made possible by the wealth and patronage it generates. This isn’t so much erudition as a weird form of grace, the courtesy assist that reality offers to the artist looking for meaning in it. Often, as in “Captivity,” a passage of extraordinary linguistic polish comes with a kind of implied caption. Here the caption would be “Kid’s Haircut”: Now the lines of his skull appear, the hair fallen to the floor (grown for the better part —a thousand pardons—of a year and as leonine as a roar;

Google has changed poetry as it has everything else, releasing cultural capital from the miserly grasp of institutions. But it is silent about relations: the world still needs a mind knitting it together one comparison at a time. The haircut passage ends with a mélange that only Mlinko’s sensibility could have concocted. The floor beside the barber’s chair, covered with shorn locks, brings to this particular mind “the aeolian origins of loess, / the ground a leonine mess.” linko’s book is a study of indeciM sion, stalemate, truce: suspensions of cause and effect, like the levitating anvil in “Cottonmouth,” that work for only so long. Poems are brutally aware of their short span of action; they’re terminal cases, but they bring the news of beauty. In “What to Read This Summer,” the age-old problem inspires Mlinko to compare the long-lived names of roses to the short-lived blossoms they describe. Ars longa, vita brevis. But there’s no escapism to be had in the flower catalogues or the nursery aisles. “Terrible are the rose names,” Mlinko writes: ‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Playboy,’ ‘Senior Prom’ and ‘Let’s Enjoy’ vie with a lyrical ‘Lady of Shalott,’ while a flyweight ‘Pink Knockout’ comes ‘Outta the Blue’ to mock ‘Honey Perfume,’ ‘Pillow Talk’ —jock Cupid wielding clout.

It’s a flip book of roles, some better than others, that, Mlinko suggests, a person might have played in the course of a life. In the book’s final poem, “Cythera,” the roles have been assumed by other, younger actors. This is the “seashore at evening,” where lithesome mermaids on motorcycles whiz by, their “leather-clad calves” united with a “noir chassis.” Invisible onlookers, we gawk at the spectacle of the young, whose lives are still an open question. The gorgeous gesture that closes “Distant Mandate” implies that the nick of time has arrived, sadly, a little late. The new spectacle is our own face in the mirror as it ages and fades: all the original instinct for display or chase from which this performance rises (or depends) carries on life-and-death while our species looks at its own face, experimenting with disguises, putting time on hold by holding its breath.  THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 4, 2017



OVER IT James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem return. BY HUA HSU

CD Soundsystem’s career ended L quite magically, in 2011, with a concert at Madison Square Garden. At the end of the night, after an almost decadelong run during which the group changed what both dance music and rock bands could do, balloons fell from the ceiling, strangers hugged one another, and devoted fans cried. The next year, a documentary, “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” captured the concert’s staging and immediate aftermath, and also James Murphy, the group’s sole full-time member, having long, thoughtful conversations about the musical legacy he was leaving behind. In 2014, a lavish boxed set arrived to further commemorate that glori-

ous last hurrah. Murphy, who is now fortyseven, retired to a life of seeming leisure, opening a wine bar, roasting coffee beans, and indulging in one-off, prestige musical experiments involving the U.S. Open and the New York City subways. When Murphy announced, in January, 2016, that he and his principal collaborators, the keyboardist Nancy Whang and the percussionist Pat Mahoney, would reunite, many fans were excited but unsurprised, presuming that they had simply decided to cash in on their legacy— it was the kind of jaded response that had been conditioned by the group’s knowing, punkish music. But there were some people for whom the band, whose

There is still some old-versus-young frivolity, but the new album feels heavy. 90


anthems about getting older and feeling younger had served as benchmarks for personal growth, belonged in the past. A lifetime of collecting and arguing about music had served Murphy well in his previous career as a sound engineer, in the nineties. But it also meant that he was bruising and snobbish in his estimations of what was good and what wasn’t. In the early two-thousands, after an epiphany about the glories of dancing—it involved the drug ecstasy—he began working as a producer, and cofounded the label DFA. The music that DFA put out was a thrillingly promiscuous fusion of post-punk’s wiry intensity, the spacey expanse of German experimental rock, and dance music’s call to transcendence. LCD Soundsystem started as a bit of a joke. Murphy wasn’t a particularly strong singer, his vocal range initially landing somewhere between talking and hectoring. The band’s first hit was “Losing My Edge,” in 2002, a play-by-play commentary in which Murphy, the consummate aging hipster, realizes his own obsolescence. But it captured an idea about coolness, taste, and mastery which, in retrospect, was on its last legs. Murphy had peculiar, wide-ranging tastes at a time when amassing a huge, eclectic record collection indicated a compulsive, cooler-than-thou personality. But he also understood that putting together unlikely things could produce interesting emotional friction. He tinkered with dance music’s maximalist tendencies, pairing huge, community-moving beats with introspective, almost twee lyrics. And his intense, theatrical sense of self-awareness short-circuited criticisms that his music was unoriginal—that seemed to be the point. Being older means that you have a longer list of old highs to chase, if you have the energy to do so. What Murphy mastered in the course of LCD Soundsystem’s first three albums was how to convey the sensations and the feelings of aging without sounding tired. He was suggesting an emotional grammar without ever clearly employing it. His songs offered glimpses of drifting apart and letting go, of feeling love and being loved, but rarely more than just glimpses. There was always an incompleteness that felt meaningful. I have spent seasons chasing the thrills of LCD Soundsystem anILLUSTRATION BY NICK LITTLE

thems—especially “All My Friends,” a 2007 hit built on soul-searching and on galloping pianos—despite understanding only about half of the lyrics. “American Dream,” the new LCD Soundsystem album, begins with “Oh Baby,” a luscious, gliding synth-pop gem that manages to feel cavernous yet tender. “Tonite” is a funny, self-referential dance-floor anthem about dance-floor anthems. “Everybody’s singing the same song / It goes Tonite (tonight tonight tonight tonight tonight) / I never realized that these artists thought so much about dying.” It’s a playful stab at those who live purely for the moment—might the fear of missing out merely reveal our death drive? Murphy pops up, in a muffled interlude, as a “hobbled veteran of the disk-shop inquisition,” a reminder that “you’re getting older—I promise you this.” Why not just enjoy it? Murphy’s self-consciousness has always kept his songs from saying too much, when intimation or innuendo will do. On “How Do You Sleep?” he shames a onetime friend, recalling the days when they laughed, fought, and talked about the dangers of doing all that cocaine. Despite his howling vocals and a grim, almost vengefully heavy synth line, it has some funny moments: “Standing on the shore getting old / You left me here with the vape clowns.” The song might be interpreted as a revenge tune directed at Tim Goldsworthy, who co-founded DFA, and from whom Murphy is now estranged.

arlier this year, the journalist Lizzy E Goodman published “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011,” an oral history centered on bands such as

the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and LCD Soundsystem. It’s odd to read a memorial to a period that ended so recently. But, as nearly everyone Goodman interviews says, there was once a time when people had to telephone one another in order to make plans, an era when cabs didn’t fancy going to Brooklyn, and—in the case of New York City’s arbitrarily enforced “cabaret laws,” which require licenses for people to dance—a time, during Rudolph Giuliani’s administration, when bars feared being shut down if a few people were swaying in unison. The book is broadly about making it in the city and conjuring a scene you want to be a part of. But it also addresses precocity—how it’s possible for success to come too fast. This certainly wasn’t a problem for Murphy, who spent his twenties playing in fairly generic indierock bands. By the early aughts, he was bored and jaded because he had already tried and failed; he was well down the path of plan B, the less glamorous life of recording other people’s music. But then Murphy somehow managed to turn a seemingly unmarketable archetype—the studio nerd, chatty purist, and well-fed dad telling his kid he’s heard it all before—into an act that could headline festivals. Rock traditions finally unravelled, and Murphy became the new establishment. When LCD Soundsystem released the title track of “American Dream” as a single, I thought it was a gorgeous, misty, synth-pop waltz that didn’t really go anywhere. (I also thought it was a curious title for a time like now.) But I found myself humming certain lines over and over: “Look what happened

when you were dreaming / And then punch yourself in the face.” As always, Murphy’s flat, disaffected style of singing gives the impression that he’s above it all, not quite disassociating but capable of floating free from the scene. There’s a heaviness to the new album. Many of the songs feel more traditionally rock driven than LCD Soundsystem’s earlier work, and few of them hit their peaks. There are still bursts of old-versus-young frivolity, as Murphy giggles at “these bullying children of the fabulous / raffling off limited-edition shoes.” But the most significant losses lamented on “American Dream” aren’t about a bygone hipness or the diminishing power of morning-after vitality. The album ends with “Black Screen”: at first, it’s just a slow pulse, then analog synths enter, sounding as if they’re interpreting a gentle breeze. “Couldn’t make our wedding day / Too sick to travel / You fell between a friend and a father,” Murphy sings, quietly and flatly. A lot of the song’s details echo stories Murphy has been sharing about his friendship with David Bowie. Murphy said in an interview that he had been invited to co-produce Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar,” but he felt overwhelmed. “I had fear in the room,” he sings. “So I stopped turning up.” By song’s end, he’s combing old e-mail threads, laughing at shared jokes, staring at an image of the cosmos—“You could be anywhere on the black screen.” Previous metrics for personal change begin to seem quaint. Friendships have been mended, accounts settled. But now it’s a far different scale of yearning, as the pillars around Murphy disappear. 


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“Technically, I’m guarding two posts.” Henry Godfrey, Rockville, Md. “No hurry. He tweets for a couple of hours every morning.” Arthur Smith, Winchester, Mass. “Seriously, all you need is a letter from your doctor.” Joe Maris, Carnation, Wash.

“Remember when I told you that the pizza here is famous?” Devlin Hyna, Chicago, Ill.