FEB. 5, 2018
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FEBRUARY 5, 2018
4 GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN 15 THE TALK OF THE TOWN
Amy Davidson Sorkin on Trump’s Mueller interview; the right’s ancestors; Malcolm X on the runway; a Voidoid and his disciple; Lithgow’s close shave. PERSONAL HISTORY
The Recipe for Life Learning to be like or unlike your father. SHOUTS & MURMURS
How to Dismiss Harassment Like a French Woman THE WORLD OF BUSINESS
The Happiness Button A device to simplify the way we rate experiences. ANNALS OF MEDICINE
The Death Debate A child’s case reopens a deep medical question. A REPORTER AT LARGE
Airborne The rise of drone racing and its élite pilots. FICTION
“Bronze” THE CRITICS THE ART WORLD
Peter Hujar’s photographs that dare.
The criticism of Martin Amis. Briefly Noted
Reappraising the works of Florence Price.
“The End of the F***ing World” and “Big Mouth.”
Tess Gallagher Gerald Stern
DRAWINGS Ellis Rosen, Liana Finck, Will McPhail, Michael Maslin, William Haefeli, David Sipress, Roz Chast, Frank Cotham, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Pia Guerra, Emily Flake, Jeremy Nguyen, Olivia de Recat, Paul Noth SPOTS Philippe Petit-Roulet
CULT MEMBER. RUNAWAY. C APTIVE. STARLET. SEX SYMBOL. JUSTICE SEEKER.
CONTRIBUTORS Rachel Aviv (“The Death Debate,” p. 30)
Ian Frazier (“Airborne,” p. 42) most re-
won the 2015 Scripps Howard Award for “Your Son Is Deceased,” her story on police shootings, which appeared in The New Yorker.
cently published “Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces” and is working on a book about the Bronx.
Michael Chabon (“The Recipe for Life,”
p. 20) is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of fourteen books. This piece is an excerpt from his latest essay collection, “Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces,” which comes out in May.
Emily Nussbaum (On Television, p. 70), the magazine’s television critic, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
thor of, most recently, the poetry collection “Is, Is Not,” forthcoming in 2019.
David Owen (“The Happiness Button,” p. 26) is the author of “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River,” based on his article “Where the River Runs Dry,” which appeared in the May 25, 2015, issue of the magazine.
Mark Ulriksen (Cover) has contributed more than ﬁfty-ﬁve covers to the magazine since 1994.
Riane Konc (Shouts & Murmurs, p. 25) has contributed to newyorker.com, the Times, and Reductress.
Amy Davidson Sorkin (Comment, p. 15),
Alex Ross (Musical Events, p. 68), the
a staﬀ writer, is a regular contributor to Comment. She also writes a column for newyorker.com.
magazine’s music critic since 1996, is the author of “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This.”
Jeﬀrey Eugenides (Fiction, p. 50) is the
Anna Russell (The Talk of the Town, p. 18) is a member of the magazine’s editorial staﬀ.
Tess Gallagher (Poem, p. 34) is the au-
author of, most recently, the story collection “Fresh Complaint.”
“My life, as you will read, has taken me from one cult to another. BRAVE is the story of how I fought my way out of these cults and reclaimed my life. I want to help you do the same.”
—ROSE McGOWAN NOW AVAILABLE WHEREVER BOOKS AND E-BOOKS ARE SOLD AUDIO EDITION READ BY THE AUTHOR
VIDEO One of the Pentagon Papers whistleblowers speaks publicly for the ﬁrst time about his role in the leaks.
PHOTO BOOTH Dana Goodyear writes about California’s booming marijuana-based wellness industry.
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LEFT: SHARON ALPEROVITZ; RIGHT: CHAD PITMAN FOR THE NEW YORKER
NEWYORKER.COM Everything in the magazine, and more.
THE MAIL THE ART OF TRANSLATION
which Yeun conveys as “go.”) As Dano kicks Yeun, he shouts, “Never misJiayang Fan, in her review of the nov- translate!” Later, Yeun, freshly inked elist Han Kang’s work, questions with a tattoo that reads “Translation whether Han’s success has depended, Is Sacred,” returns to help save the in part, on liberties taken by her En- day. This plotline turns on a basic asglish translator, Deborah Smith—a sumption about translators: that we question that has been debated pas- are neutral conduits for someone else’s sionately since Han and Smith were meaning. But, in fact, literary transjointly awarded the Man Booker In- lation is a necessarily interpretive and ternational Prize for Han’s ﬁrst novel, subjective act that depends on the “The Vegetarian,” in 2016 (Books, Jan- translator more as a reader than as a uary 15th). I’ve read “The Vegetarian” transmitter of information. As a rein Korean and in English. I was awed sult, the arguments around Smith’s by the spare beauty of Han’s writing translation reveal more about critics’ in the original, and also by the book’s assumptions than they do about Han structure and its themes of feminism or Smith. and vegetarianism. Han’s prose bris- Jenny Wang Medina tles with a quiet anger that would re- Rutgers University quire a ﬁnely calibrated ear to cap- New Brunswick, N.J. ture in translation. Smith’s version may have problems—what transla- REVISITING JOAN MURRAY tion doesn’t?—but it is also ﬂuid and natural. All translators improve with As the editor of the New York Retime. In Smith’s translation of Han’s view Books “Poets” series, in which second novel, “Human Acts,” it seems Joan Murray’s “Drafts, Fragments, and to me that her understanding of Ko- Poems” will appear, I was delighted rean has deepened, leading to a greater to read Dan Chiasson’s take on Murfaithfulness to the author’s tone. Six ray’s work (Books, January 22nd). My years is a very short time to have stud- one disappointment was that Chiasied a language, and, had the Man son failed to mention the signal conBooker committee not chosen to tribution that was made by Farnoosh award the prize to both writer and Fathi, the book’s editor. Fathi tracked translator, Smith’s process would not down Murray’s long-missing manuhave come under such scrutiny. Re- scripts, and used them to restore her gardless, we should not let the debate published poems to their original about the translation overshadow the forms. She also found previously unbook itself. published works, in addition to letKrys Lee ters that provide a more complete picSeoul, South Korea ture of Murray’s life. The resulting book discovers a new poet as much In “Okja,” a 2017 movie by the South as it recovers a forgotten one. Work Korean director Bong Joon-ho, Paul like Fathi’s is both exacting and easy Dano plays the English-speaking to overlook, and yet it is born of love. leader of an animal-rights activist Art lives through it. group attempting to save a pig from Edwin Frank a corporate slaughterhouse. Partway New York City through the ﬁlm, Dano beats up Ste• ven Yeun, a Korean-American member of the group, for intentionally Letters should be sent with the writer’s name, mistranslating a young Korean girl’s address, and daytime phone number via e-mail to response to the question of whether email@example.com. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in she is willing to coöperate with the any medium. We regret that owing to the volume group’s plan. (The girl says “no,” of correspondence we cannot reply to every letter.
Lewis W. Hine, Powerhouse Mechanic, silver print, circa 1921. Estimate $70,000 to $100,000.
Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks FEBRUARY 15 Daile Kaplan • firstname.lastname@example.org
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To order, please visit newyorkerstore.com THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
JANUARY 31 – FEBRUARY 6, 2018
The eagerly anticipated Feb. 16 release of “Black Panther,” the Marvel movie directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, sends BAM Cinématek to the archives for “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” (Feb. 2-18). The offerings include independent and low-budget films from the nineteenseventies that set the tone for black action heroes, including “Cleopatra Jones,” from 1973, starring Tamara Dobson as a federal agent who works undercover as a model while fighting to destroy a drug cartel.
GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN
1 ROCK AND POP
Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.
Jane Birkin This English actress, musician, and style icon became famous for her provocative musical collaborations with Serge Gainsbourg, beginning when she was in her early twenties, in the nineteen-sixties. But she didn’t play her first concert until the age of forty. “Serge was there, and he kept lighting his cigarette lighter to make everybody put their lighters on when I sang ‘Fuir le Bonheur,’” Birkin recently reminisced. “People should never think it’s all over when you’re very young.” At Carnegie Hall, she’ll perform with the Wordless Music Orchestra from her album “Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique,” a tribute to her late collaborator and partner. (Seventh Ave. at 57th St. 212-247-7800. Feb. 1.) Brockhampton This gaggle of rap brats met on Internet forums, bonding over mutual on-brand obsessions like Kanye West, Odd Future, and overalls. The bullheaded and single-minded crew is led by Kevin Abstract, and though his ambition may outpace his star power, the band has culled a movement all the same. Since last year, Brockhampton has released three albums, in a series titled “Saturation,” and announced a fourth, eager to deliver eye-popping visuals and ride-along bops to a dedicated fan base of sunny adolescents. Linking with Odd Future’s management team has only furthered the cause; the heat-seeking single “Gold” is a hit at house parties on both coasts. Brockhampton is in town for three nights, on its “Love Your Parents” tour. (Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Pl. 212-777-6800. Feb. 2-4.) Deli Girls The metallic suite of hoarse refrains and spiralling distortion loops staged by Deli Girls makes for one of the most arresting shows in the city. Dreamed up by the vocalist Danielle Orlowski and the producer Tommi Kelly, Deli Girls weaves its handful of jagged numbers together with exciting precision: Kelly takes a knee behind a spread of knobby black samplers and guitar pedals, conjuring acidic drums like he’s tending a small garden. Orlowski is all sneering energy, landing somewhere between rap and punk with each biting, sardonic verse. “You’re so tough, you never pay for yourself, you’re so tough, little punk girl, you’re so unique, you’re somebody’s girlfriend, that’s all you want to be!” Orlowski shouts on “Punk Girl,” and it’s easy to imagine that she’s more comfortable facing the crowd than being brought into it. Deli Girls plays an all-ages show at the Glove. (885 Lexington Ave., Brooklyn. 651-456-8310. Feb. 4.) Brent Faiyaz This Baltimore singer takes a lot of cues from nineties R. & B., a genre big on arrangement and schmalz. Both his solo work and his collaborations with the group Sonder are moody and melodic, and his voice finds the right notes: the twentytwo-year-old makes quiet cruise music tuned for late, long drives around D.C. suburbs. Faiyaz, born Christopher Brent Wood, assisted on a major hit
last year, when he voiced the chorus for “Crew,” a single by Virginia’s Goldlink and the D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy, which has gained persistent airplay. It’s a good time to catch the young crooner, who is currently on tour promoting his heartfelt breakthrough album, “Sonder Son.” Diana Gordon supports. (Rough Trade NYC, 64 N. 9th St., Brooklyn. roughtradenyc.com. Feb. 4.)
Jools Holland On “Later . . . with Jools Holland,” which has aired on BBC2 since 1992, this pianist, singer, and composer hosts a wide array of guests for strippeddown live performances: Johnny Cash, Cee-Lo Green, Jamiroquai, LCD Soundsystem, and countless others have graced the show’s stage. Holland has performed and recorded consistently since the mid-seventies, and in recent years has led his own band, the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, for stands at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert and Glastonbury. It is Holland’s exhaustive ear for eclectic tastes that has made him an icon in his field. He performs at the Blue Note for the first time in more than fifteen years, in a show called “Piano, Vocals and Drum Frenzy,” joined by the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra cofounder and drummer, Gilson Lavis, and the vocalists Ruby Turner, Mabel Ray, and Louise Marshall. (131 W. 3rd St. 212-475-8592. Feb. 1-4.) Just Blaze As an in-house hit-maker for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella record label, Justin Smith stood out among a stable of young producers—including his peer Kanye West—for his ability to infuse meaning and subtext into his choice of musical samples. He scored a breakout with Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls,” in 2001. Recognizable for its rich violins, velveteen backing harmonies by Tom Brock, and playful guest vocals by Q-Tip, Slick Rick, and Biz Markie, the track taps a spectrum of funk, R. & B., and hip-hop in a coquettish sendup of pop misogyny. More recently, Smith crafted the marching fight song “Freedom,” a high point on Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade.” He also occasionally moonlights as a d.j., dipping into electronic club bins that are true to his New Jersey origins. This week, he’s at Brooklyn Bowl for a special edition of the “Bowl Train” series. (61 Wythe Ave., Williamsburg. 718-963-3369. Feb. 1.) Poppy In 1985, Roger Troutman sang of finding “Computer Love” in the glowing eyes emanating from newfangled screens. In 2017, Poppy fell for the machine itself. “I’ve got a thing for my laptop computer,” she sings on one of her many meta-songs, uploaded to her YouTube channel alongside hundreds of sterile, cybernetic monologues. Portrayed by Moriah Rose Pereira, Poppy reads the Bible, interviews plants, and denies belonging to a cult. Her followers remain undeterred. This January, YouTube Red premièred “I’m Poppy” at the Sundance Film Festival, the first episode of a series that will dive deeper into the Poppy origin story. This week, fans can see her in the flesh for two nights at Bowery Ballroom. (6 Delancey St. 212260-4700. Jan. 30-31.) Wolf Eyes Secret Project Robot, the nonprofit art space, is in its fourth incarnation, having begun as Wil-
liamsburg’s Mighty Robot, in 1998; it’s grown into a vital incubator for local and national avantgarde acts. This week, Michigan’s hardworking ambassadors of harsh noise hold court, performing songs from the 2015 album “I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces” (released on Jack White’s label, Third Man) and last March’s follow-up record, “Undertow.” The discography of Wolf Eyes is intimidating (Third Man pegs its output at more than five hundred lathe cuts, CD-Rs, and cassettes), but its latest works have marked a turning point, with the trio’s pounding postindustrial sound migrating into droning, pop-aware pastures. Earplugs are still recommended. The group performs with Trip Mental Movement and Yatta. (1186 Broadway, Brooklyn. secretprojectrobot.org. Feb. 4.)
1 JAZZ AND STANDARDS
David Berkman The cunning pianist and composer Berkman has had saxophones on his mind of late. As on his 2015 album, “Old Friends and New Friends,” he stocks his ensemble with prized wind players: here, the horn men include Adam Kolker, Billy Drewes, and Tim Armacost. (Smoke, 2751 Broadway, between 105th and 106th Sts. 212-864-6662. Feb. 2-4.) Jane Ira Bloom Although her latest recording was the acclaimed “Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson,” an ambitious project that mated the work of the Belle of Amherst with modern jazz, this centered soprano saxophonist and composer scales back to an instrumental-trio format here. Bloom is joined by two longtime collaborators, the bassist Mark Helias and the drummer Bobby Previte. (Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St. 212-989-9319. Feb. 4.) Ron McClure Trio If all it took was an impressive C.V. to garner a place in the spotlight, this bassist would have been a household name in jazz circles years ago. As it is, those who recognize a virtuosic player and a fine composer when they hear one appreciate McClure’s work, especially with the likes of Charles Lloyd and Dave Liebman. He’s joined by the pianist Michael Eckroth and the drummer Peter Zim mer. (Jazz at Kitano, 66 Park Ave., at 38th St. 212885-7119. Feb. 2.) Isaac Mizrahi He sings, he kibbitzes, he distributes personal swag to lucky members of the audience, and, in his free time, he’s been known to design clothes. Mizrahi may not win any vocal prizes in the near future, but he’s a natural cabaret-meister. He practically dares you to have any less grand a time than he’s having. (Café Carlyle, Carlyle Hotel, Madison Ave. at 76th St. 212-744-1600. Jan. 30-Feb. 10.) Miguel Zenon “Tipico,” Zenon’s current album, is a dedicatory project that celebrates the unity and inventiveness of the alto saxophonist’s longtime quartet, now completing its second decade as a fierce modernist ensemble. The leader’s lapel-grabbing style of playing may remain the focus, but his bandmates— the pianist Luis Perdomo, the bassist Hans Gla wischnig, and the drummer Henry Cole—are invaluable contributors, having thoroughly absorbed Zenon’s integration of Latin musical sources and jazz. They are all worthy of his obvious pride. (Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Ave. S., at 11th St. 212255-4037. Feb. 6-11.) THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Mitchell, shown here in 1963, was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet from 1962 to 1971.
Color Line Crossed Long before Misty Copeland, there was Arthur Mitchell.
Arthur Mitchell, the eighty-three-yearold founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, has said that when he was young, “there was a fallacy that blacks couldn’t do classical ballet, because they had big butts and they had ﬂat feet, and . . . all like that.”This belief has not been retired altogether, as was made clear recently, when Misty Copeland, a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, felt she had to hire a public-relations ﬁrm to help her get promoted to principal. But we shouldn’t forget that at our country’s 6
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
other top-tier company, New York City Ballet, this color line was crossed half a century earlier, by Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell knew early that he wanted to become a dancer, but, probably because of the “fallacy” he speaks of, he studied just about every technique except ballet: tap, jazz, modern dance. Finally, Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder, with George Balanchine, of City Ballet, saw Mitchell’s graduation performance at the High School of the Performing Arts and gave the School of American Ballet, N.Y.C.B.’s aﬃliate, enough money to oﬀer him a scholarship. Mitchell thus began studying ballet, in 1952, at the late age of eighteen.
Three years later, out of the blue, he received a telegram saying “WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN COMPANY AS PERMANENT MEMBER STARTING CORPS DE BALLET MINIMUM SALARY . . . LINCOLN KIRSTEIN.” A few months later, Mitchell was assigned to partner a very pointy-nosed white ballerina—Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine’s wife at that time—in the choreographer’s “Western Symphony.” As Mitchell recalls, an audience member sitting right behind the conductor exclaimed, “By God, they’ve got a nigger in the company.” Mitchell spent sixteen years at City Ballet, becoming a principal dancer in 1962. In 1968, when Martin Luther King was killed, Mitchell decided he would leave and found Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company dedicated to showing that black people could indeed dance ballet. In his view, all they needed was to be given, as students, what white dance students were routinely oﬀered: training, encouragement, and models. In 2015, Mitchell donated his papers to Columbia University. Out of those materials and others, the distinguished dance historian Lynn Garafola has created an exhibition, “Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer,” which will be up, at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery, through March 11. There you can see the heart-stopping telegram, and many beautiful photographs. Most thrilling, though, are the videos, because of what they say about Mitchell’s versatility. We are perhaps too used to seeing him in photos of Balanchine’s severe, pathbreaking “Agon.” So it is nice to see him in other Balanchine roles: a relaxed, hi-pardner cowboy in “Western Symphony,” a bobbysoxer in “Ivesiana.” Best of all is his Puck, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” clothed in not much and streaking, moon-silvered, through the forest. In most “Midsummer” ballets, Puck is a cute little toy. Only Balanchine could have come up with this glamorous, even slightly alarming idea of Puck, and only Mitchell could have executed it. It hasn’t been done that way since he left. —Joan Acocella
DANCE New York City Ballet The “All Balanchine No. 2” evening includes the Mozartean “Divertimento No. 15,” which unspools in a series of intricate female solos; “The Four Temperaments,” a striking example of Balanchine’s modernist, mid-century look; and “Chaconne,” which combines a radiant pas de deux with a suite of courtly dances. The “New Combinations” lineup includes a première, by the company dancer Peter Walker, entitled “Dance Odyssey,” set to music by the British composer Oliver Davis. That program also includes one of the most exciting ballets created for the company in this century, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons.” • Jan. 31 at 7:30 and Feb. 4 at 3: “The Wind Still Brings,” “Composer’s Holiday,” “Spectral Evidence,” and “Year of the Rabbit.” • Feb. 1 at 7:30 and Feb. 3 at 2: “The Red Violin,” “Dance Odyssey,” and “Russian Seasons.” • Feb. 2 at 8 and Feb. 6 at 7:30: “Square Dance,” “Oltremare,” and “The Four Seasons.” • Feb. 3 at 8: “Divertimento No. 15,” “The Four Temperaments,” and “Chaconne.” (David H. Koch, Lincoln Center. 212-721-6500. Through March 4.) Compagnie Hervé Koubi / “What the Day Owes to the Night” When the French choreographer Koubi learned, at twenty-five, that his family had Algerian roots, he went back to the country of his forefathers and created this piece, in collaboration with a group of nonprofessional dancers, all men. Most were street dancers, adept at martial arts and hip-hop. The result is an exploration of masculinity and male beauty, meditative and at times tender, containing moments of striking virtuosity. (Joyce Theatre, 175 Eighth Ave., at 19th St. 212-242-0800. Jan. 30-Feb. 4.) Mina Nishimura As a dancer, Nishimura is adept at playing her cute appearance against the interior darkness she is able to suggest. Her Butoh-inspired dances are often like that, too: whimsical on the surface, disturbing underneath. In her new ensemble piece, “Bladder Inn (and X, Y, Z, W),” bodies drift and swerve, like spirits trapped within a church. (Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, Second Ave. at 10th St. 866-811-4111. Feb. 1-3.) Camille A. Brown & Dancers The last two works that this award-winning choreographer made for her company—“Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012) and “Black Girl: Linguistic Play” (2015)—weren’t originally created as installments in a trilogy, but they’ve been redefined as such by the début of a third work, “ink.” The connection among the three is a concern with racial identity and with replacing stereotypes of AfricanAmericans with more nuanced representations. At this “Peak Performances” appearance, Brown and her emotionally open dancers play with body language, taking gestures from everyday life or hiphop and mashing them up with an African-dance vocabulary to reveal an empowering continuity. The live music, heavy on percussion, communicates the same message. (Alexander Kasser Theatre, 1 Normal Ave., Montclair, N.J. 973-655-5112. Feb. 1-4.) “Works & Process” / “A New Carousel” Following in the footsteps of Christopher Wheeldon, and Jerome Robbins before him, the young ballet choreographer Justin Peck is making his Broadway début, as choreographer, with a revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” At the Guggenheim, Peck will discuss the project with the show’s director, Jack O’Brien, and members of the cast will perform excerpts. (Fifth Ave. at 89th St. 212-423-3575. Feb. 4.)
Metropolitan Opera The Met’s music director designate, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is deep in James Levine territory as he conducts this season’s revival of Richard Wagner’s magisterial valedictory opera, “Parsifal.” Klaus Florian Vogt heads up an indefatigable principal cast—including Peter Mattei, René Pape, Evgeny Nikitin, and Evelyn Herlitzius—in François Girard’s postapocalyptic production of the four-hour-plus work. Feb. 5 at 6. • Also playing: Bartlett Sher’s picturesque rendition of Donizetti’s feather-light comedy “L’Elisir d’Amore” returns with a cast of full-bodied lyric voices, including Matthew Polenzani, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, and Pretty Yende; Domingo Hindoyan conducts. Jan. 31 at 7:30 and Feb. 3 at 8. • In David McVicar’s double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” the operas take place forty years apart in the same town square in provincial Italy; while the clothes and social norms change, the emotions swirling around love and its loss remain the same. The star tenor, Roberto Alagna, leads a strong cast that also features Ekaterina Semenchuk, George Gagnidze, and Aleksandra Kurzak; Nicola Luisotti. (This is the final performance.) Feb. 1 at 8. • McVicar’s fast-paced production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” hurls the opera’s characters toward their grisly fate with just enough time for a string of explosive arias and, of course, the opera’s famous Anvil Chorus. The show stars Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, and Anita Rachvelishvili; Marco Armiliato. (Dolora Zajick replaces Rachvelishvili in the second performance.) Feb. 3 at 1 and Feb. 6 at 7:30. (Metropolitan Opera House. 212-362-6000.) Mannes Opera: “The Fall of the House of Usher” The conservatory mounts an ambitious multimedia production of Philip Glass’s chamber opera, which is based on the chilling story by Edgar Allan Poe. The admired David Fulmer conducts the student cast. Feb. 1-2 at 8 and Feb. 3 at 3 and 8. (Arnhold Hall, 55 W. 13th St. newschool.edu.) Opera Lafayette: “Erminia” and “La Forêt Enchantée” Alessandro Scarlatti’s serenata and Francesco Geminiani’s dance pantomime are both based on Tasso’s epic poem “Jerusalem Delivered,” a fanciful reimagining of the First Crusade that has captivated composers from Monteverdi to Dvořák. The production, conceived by the company’s artistic director, Ryan Brown, sidesteps the portrayal of duelling Christians and Muslims by transporting the action to India’s Mughal Empire. Feb. 2 at 7:30. (Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, John Jay College, 524 W. 59th St. 212-634-9388.)
1 ORCHESTRAS AND CHORUSES
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra The charismatic Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth appears with the renowned conductorless chamber orchestra at Carnegie Hall, where she’ll be out front in concertos by Bach (in D Minor, BWV 974) and Albinoni; works
by Rossini, Haydn, and Mozart (the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor) are also featured. Feb. 3 at 7. (212-247-7800.)
The Knights: “Love Sick” In its latest program, the freewheeling Brooklyn chamber orchestra focusses on provocative arrangements (by Reinbert de Leeuw) of lieder by Schubert and Schumann, sung with style by the actress and singer Katja Herbers, noted for her TV roles in “Westworld” and “The Americans.” Feb. 3 at 8. (BRIC Arts Media House, 647 Fulton St., Brooklyn. 718-683-5600.)
“Composer Portrait”: Raphaël Cendo The latest in Miller Theatre’s invaluable series of composer snapshots focusses on a Berlin-based French composer whose works express a notion of “saturation”: a dense, exhilarating abundance of timbre and force. The compelling ensembles Either/Or and Yarn/Wire present four compositions, including the U.S. première of “Substance” (2013). Feb. 1 at 8. (Columbia University, Broadway at 116th St. millertheatre.com.) Axiom: “Schnee” This hour-long sequence of ten canons for nine instruments by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen evokes winter’s brittle chill with uncanny acuity. Having performed a portion of the work last season, the conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and his stellar student new-music ensemble here present a complete account. Feb. 2 at 7:30. (Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Juilliard School, 155 W. 65th St. juilliard.edu.) Iarla Ó Lionáird and PUBLIQuartet Ó Lionáird, a singer capable of wrenching hearts in both traditional Irish music and contemporary permutations, joins the innovative string quartet in “Bushranger Psychodrama,” a new work by the talented Australian-Dutch composer Kate Moore. The program also includes Irish folk songs as well as music by Meredith Monk, Caroline Shaw, and Jessie Montgomery. Feb. 3 at 7:30. (Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th St. symphonyspace.org.) Telegraph Quartet In the kind of uncompromising program long associated with the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, four of the newest winners, the members of this superb young ensemble, gather at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall to perform a selection of challenging works: Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 1, Robert Sirota’s Quartet No. 3, “Wave Upon Wave” (a world première), and Schoenberg’s magnificent, late-Romantic Quartet in D Minor, Op. 7. Feb. 6 at 7:30. (212-247-7800.) Matthias Goerne and Daniil Trifonov The brooding interpreter of Teutonic song and the dazzling concert pianist join forces for an intense program of high Romanticism. The recital, which is part of a series that Trifonov is curating at Carnegie Hall this season, includes Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2, Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” Brahms’s “Four Serious Songs,” and Wolf’s “Three Poems of Michelangelo.” Feb. 6 at 8. (Stern Auditorium. 212-247-7800.) THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Kathe Burkhart Sometimes, the world catches up to an artist. Since the nineteen-eighties, Burkhart has been making a spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor in big, brash mixedmedia paintings, which are loosely based on movie stills. But the series has never looked more of the moment than it does here, with its chorus of eight nasty women assembled a block from Trump Tower. Underscoring the pictures’ pop-punk tone of defiance are phrases, most of them expletives, emblazoned across the canvases like closed-captioning for the outrage-impaired. Still, as powerful as Burkhart’s feminist politics are, the real draw is her tautly extravagant compositions, which play collaged elements off the essential flatness of acrylic paint in a campy palette of gold, crimson, teal, and, of course, the violet of Taylor’s eyes. Through Feb. 24. (Boone, 745 Fifth Ave., at 57th St. 212-752-2929.) LaToya Ruby Frazier Frazier takes an earnest, activist approach to photography, bearing witness to the American catastrophe of inequality. She fills the multi-floor gallery with three bodies of work, including “The Notion of Family,” made between 2001 and 2014, which earned her a MacArthur Fellowship. It’s an extended meditation on racism and poverty in the deindustrialized steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, where she grew up. Frazier’s approach to Flint, Michigan, in a series from 2016-17, is similar: the intimate images, which echo the iconic, Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange, document three generations coping with the water crisis. A
mother brushes her daughter’s teeth with bottled water; students awaiting President Obama’s visit hold protest signs. On the gallery’s fourth floor, the artist exhibits photographs of Noah Purifoy’s outdoor sculpture museum in Joshua Tree, California. Her elegant treatment of the otherworldly, foundmaterial monuments reveals another aspect of her singular documentary sensibility. Through Feb. 25. (Brown, 439 W. 127th St. 212-627-5258.)
Giorgio Griffa This exhilarating show brings to light abstract paintings from the nineteen-eighties, when the Italian artist, who is now eighty-one, began straying from the lushly minimalist work he was making to follow his passion for the chromatic flair of Roman frescoes and Henri Matisse. The canvases hang unstretched on the wall, sporting grids of creases, evidence of having been folded in storage for decades—the works haven’t been seen since Griffa made them. The color is exuberant but the approach is restrained, allowing the unpainted space on each canvas to play a compositional role. Big blue loops trailing across the surface of “Tre Arabeschi” suggest an archangel’s handwriting exercise; horizontal bands of pink, peach, yellow, and salmon below vertical stripes of violet and aqua in “Campo e Segno” will banish dark thoughts, however briefly. Through Feb. 17. (Kaplan, 121 W. 27th St. 212-645-7335.) Sally Ross This ambitious show of muscular paintings bears no resemblance to the quirky neo-Surrealist still-
The Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, was also a draftsman of preternatural gifts. This ink-and-pencil rendering of the glial cells of the mouse spinal cord, from 1899, is on view in “The Beautiful Brain,” at the Grey Art Gallery, through March 31. 8
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Jamian Juliano-Villani To enter the impressive young painter’s exhibition, you walk on a carpet emblazoned with the cursive logo of her father’s printing company (located in her native New Jersey) past a dimly lit installation of white canvases scrawled with graffiti. Then the lights brighten for the main event: ten gonzo new paintings, all dated 2018, that are a mélange of the hyperreal and the absurd. (Even the titles are admirably oddball, the best being “Shut Up, the Painting,” of a traffic light in the gloaming.) “Expressions” seems to cast a gimlet eye on the cliché of artist as rebel: seen, as if by a voyeur, through a window, a nude boy in a bright-red beret crouches in his room like a gargoyle, painting his bed as if it were a canvas. Behind him, a poster advertises a Patti Smith reading; in front of him, a hurled brick is about to shatter the glass. Through Feb. 24. (JTT, 191 Chrystie St. 212-574-8152.)
Aphrodite Désirée Navab The three large black forms floating across Navab’s monotype “The Homeling”—one sand-dollar shape and two rhombuses, all of them veined—express a complex image of femininity in the Muslim world. Before the artist’s family left Iran, in the wake of the 1979 revolution, women were being forced to wear the chador, just as they had been stripped of it a few decades earlier, in a bid for modernization. Navab made “The Homeling” by inking her own chador and rolling it across a sheet of paper. A pair of red-lipstick kisses—inevitably read as erotic signs—underscore the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t pitfalls that women navigate when presenting themselves to the world. Through Feb. 3. (Vogt, 55 Chrystie St. 212-226-6966.) “Dream of Solentiname” The Solentiname painters were members of a utopian community founded by the artist, poet, and liberation theologist Father Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua’s Solentiname archipelago, in 1965. It came to an end in 1977, a casualty of the Somoza regime. Small paintings by those untrained artists are the heart of this exhibition, which relays something of the radical values of the Sandinistas, as well as the horror of the Contra war. One exquisitely detailed scene relocates the entombment of Jesus to a rain forest; another shows the grisly panorama of a civilian massacre. Also on view are dramatic photographs of wartorn Central America taken by Susan Meiselas, in the late seventies, and a chart by the collective Group Material tracing the history of U.S. intervention in the region. A charming cluster of Cardenal’s own sculptures, playfully abstracted plants and animals, offers a moment of respite. Through Feb. 14. (80WSE, 80 Washington Sq. E. 212-998-5747.)
CAJAL INSTITUTE (CSIC), MADRID
lifes that the mid-career artist was making a decade ago. There’s an old-fashioned word for what’s happened in Ross’s studio: a breakthrough. In a sense, these are old-fashioned paintings as well, taking apart the engine of abstraction and reassembling it, to see if it can go any faster. Ross’s process reflects the idea: she cuts up finished paintings and then recombines the elements into rough-hewn mosaics with visible stitches, as if to remind us that paintings are bodies in space. She makes unabashed reference to some big-league heroes: Jasper Johns, Sigmar Polke, and Lee Bontecou. With this show, Ross enters the majors herself. Through Feb. 24. (McCaffrey, 514 W. 26th St. 212-988-2200.)
1 OPENINGS AND PREVIEWS
Amy and the Orphans In this new play by Lindsey Ferrentino (“Ugly Lies the Bone”), produced by the Roundabout, two siblings take a drive with their sister (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome, after their father’s death. (Laura Pels, 111 W. 46th St. 212-7191300. Previews begin Feb. 1.) Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story Lila Neugebauer directs Albee’s diptych of one-act plays: his 1959 classic “The Zoo Story” and its 2004 companion piece, “Homelife.” (Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. 212-244-7529. In previews.) Fire and Air Terrence McNally’s new play, directed by John Doyle, traces the relationship between the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) and his lover and star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer). (Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. 866-811-4111. In previews. Opens Feb. 1.) Hangmen In this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), the secondbest hangman in England (Mark Addy) reacts to the news that capital punishment has been abolished. (Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St. 866-811-4111. In previews. Opens Feb. 5.) In the Body of the World Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) wrote and performs this piece about her experience receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness while working in the Congo; Diane Paulus directs, for Manhattan Theatre Club. (City Center Stage I, at 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212. In previews. Opens Feb. 6.) Is God Is Aleshea Harris’s play, directed by Taibi Magar, follows twin sisters who travel from the South to the California desert on a quest for revenge. (SoHo Rep, 46 Walker St. 866-811-4111. Previews begin Feb. 6.) Jerry Springer—The Opera Richard Thomas (“Anna Nicole”) and Stewart Lee wrote this musical ode to the talk-show host, staged at London’s National Theatre in 2003. John Rando directs the New Group’s production, featuring Terrence Mann and Will Swenson. (Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. 212279-4200. In previews.) Kings Thomas Kail directs a new comedy by Sarah Burgess (“Dry Powder”), about a Washington lobbyist (Gillian Jacobs) trying to manipulate a neophyte congresswoman (Eisa Davis). (Public, 425 Lafayette St. 212-967-7555. In previews.) Relevance In JC Lee’s play, directed by Liesl Tommy for MCC, a fight between a veteran feminist author (Jayne Houdyshell) and an up-and-coming young writer (Pascale Armand) becomes an Internet sensation. (Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher St. 866-8114111. Previews begin Feb. 1.)
Returning to Reims The German director Thomas Ostermeier stages this metatheatrical adaptation of Didier Eribon’s 2009 memoir of class, sexuality, and right-drifting politics in working-class France. (St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn. 718-254-8779. Previews begin Feb. 4.) A Walk with Mr. Heifetz Primary Stages presents James Inverne’s play, which explores the ramifications of a concert given in Palestine in 1925 by the violinist Jascha Heifetz. (Cherry Lane, 38 Commerce St. 866-811-4111. In previews.)
1 NOW PLAYING
Balls On the heels of last year’s film “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, comes another, albeit more imaginative, retelling of the iconic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, played here with gusto by Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren. Their stage is a court, and even the audience’s seats have been outfitted in bright colors to resemble the chairs at the Houston Astrodome. During an intermissionless, high-octane eighty minutes, the actors reënact every shot; no balls are actually lobbed, but the fluid harmonization of movement and sound effects is transporting. The playwrights, Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, squeeze four decades of social history into the interstices of the match. When King’s lover (Zakiya Iman Markland) delivers a fiery rendition of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it is not for comedic effect. (59E59, at 59 E. 59th St. 212-279-4200.) A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds In this diptych, adapted from two Mac Wellman short stories, residents of the asteroids Wu and Horrocks confirm the existence of more or less intelligent life in the universe. Their tales—of toucans from Toutatis and a rock where everyone is named Mary Carnivorous Rabbit—are riots of sound, not sense. But that’s the way of Wellman, the theatre’s foremost practitioner of edifying nonsense. The two forty-five-minute monologues, underscored by live music, are a game-playing gallimaufry of consonance, assonance, alliteration, and glee. This means that the evening, with its descriptions of “apocalyptic dyslexia and cosmic dyspepsia,” is often a pleasure. But, as directed by Elena Araoz and performed by Anastasia Olowin and Timothy Siragusa at Next Door at NYTW, it isn’t really a play. Wildly imaginative and linguistically sumptuous, the solos are also unsalvageably static: tours de force that feel increasingly forced. (Fourth Street Theatre, 83 E. 4th St. 212-460-5475.) The Homecoming Queen Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia), a best-selling novelist, has returned to Nigeria to visit her dying father (Oberon K. A. Adjepong). Everyone tells her that she’s welcome, but she doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t act like it, either. Ngozi Anyanwu’s fascinating and frustrating play, directed by Ayowe Timpo, has a deep-rooted sense of place, enhanced by the four members of the chorus, who, when not needed onstage, sit on the sidelines folding clothes or singing
softly. The play’s emotional life is intriguingly uneasy, and its people don’t clamor to be liked. (The cast includes Mirirai Sithole, of “School Girls.”) Unfortunately, Anyanwu shackles this rich environment and these distinctive characters to the kind of lurid family secret that lives at the heart of most naturalistic plays, then relies on trance, flashbacks, and excerpts from Kelechi’s novels to clumsily guarantee its revelation. (Atlantic Stage 2, at 330 W. 16th St. 866-811-4111.)
Miles for Mary The nineteen-eighties are now generally regarded as the decade when we all might as well have died from collective embarrassment. This acid comedy of the banal, by the group the Mad Ones, gets laughs from bad perms and short shorts, but doesn’t stop there. It’s 1988, and we’re in the fluorescent-lit teachers’ lounge of an Ohio high school, where the brain trust of the annual telethon gathers to discuss fund-raising goals and themes. Over a series of meetings, passiveaggressive digs deepen into seismic squabbles—a comedic variation on the community acting classes in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” or the silent meditation sessions in Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds.” Unlike them, “Miles for Mary” was written collaboratively—there are five credited playwrights, including the director, Lila Neugebauer—and creativity by committee, with all its buried hostilities, is the play’s wickedly observed subject. (Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. 212-279-4200.) Party Face There’s real pleasure in seeing Hayley Mills, whose career stretches back to childhood Disney stardom, tackle her part in Isabel Mahon’s fivewoman comedy. She plays Carmel, fussily and intrusively organizing a party for her daughter Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan), who has recently returned from rehab after a nervous breakdown. Mills is a natural comedian, with flawless timing and physical grace. There’s even a little singing and dancing. The other actors (Brenda Meaney, as Carmel’s other daughter; Allison Jean White, as a silly, superficial neighbor; and Klea Blackhurst, as a ward-mate of Mollie Mae’s) are good, too, but they and the director, Amanda Bearse, struggle to find a unifying tone for a script that is all over the place, ranging from slapstick to tragic revelation and drawing on such tired themes as infidelity and the spiritual emptiness of modern suburbia. (City Center Stage II, at 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212.) X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation Who killed Malcolm X? That’s the thorny question at the heart of Marcus Gardley’s play, produced by the Acting Company under the direction of Ian Belknap. Set in an imaginary tribunal of sorts, the play pits the revolutionary’s widow, Betty Shabazz (the superb Roslyn Ruff), against Louis Farrakhan (J. D. Mollison), in a bow tie and suspenders, representing the Nation of Islam. Flashbacks retread well-documented episodes in Malcolm’s later life: his break with the N.O.I. and its leader, Elijah Muhammad; his mysterious poisoning on a trip to Egypt. Gardley’s script can’t avoid the pitfalls of historical pageantry, but it does provide some unexpectedly tender moments between Betty and Malcolm (Jimonn Cole), and some unlikely comic relief from Eugene Roberts (Joshua David Robinson), the N.Y.P.D. infiltrator who calls himself Malcolm’s Judas. A subtler play could have turned on his anguished betrayal. (Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. 866-811-4111.) THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Conversation Pieces The cinematic forms of female identity are on view in a wide-ranging program.
Metrograph’s essential series “Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories” (running Feb. 2-11) gets its title from a 1980 documentary by Chantal Akerman called “Dis-Moi,” which is one of the earliest ﬁlmed works of oral history about the Holocaust. In it, the thirty-year-old Akerman visits older Jewish women in Paris whose families were decimated by the Nazi regime. Their recollections (including those of Akerman’s own mother) are centered on women’s lives and on the families that were torn apart. Akerman’s ﬁxed, contemplative frames exalt the treasures of intimate experience and folklore that largely vanished with the murder of European Jewry but that survive, in fragments, in these women’s memories. Many of the ﬁlms in the series link, as Akerman’s does, the cinematic presence of women’s voices with original and personal approaches to documentary form. In the 1971 ﬁlm “Janie’s Janie,” the director, Geri Ashur, elicits the ﬁrst-person 10
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
story of a Newark woman named Janie, who, to escape an abusive father, got pregnant at ﬁfteen and married soon after, only to ﬁnd herself in the grips of an abusive husband. Janie, divorced at the time of ﬁlming, both displays and describes her eﬀorts to live an independent life; her discovery of social forces that keep women dependent inspires another mode of self-renewal—local activism that brings practical beneﬁts (as well as an intersectional political consciousness). Claire Simon’s 2003 documentary “Mimi” is also a collaborative ﬁlm, a sort of as-told-to autobiography of a woman from Nice whose family was ravaged by the Nazi occupation of France and whose own life, as a young lesbian woman at a time of intolerance, took a lyrical and rustic turn. Mimi tells her story to Simon on the basis of their friendship; Simon’s alert cinematography anchors Mimi’s story in the cityscapes and the rural settings that have shaped her life. The movie industry’s failure of women, in the substance of ﬁlms and in work practices, is the subject of the revelatory 1976 documentary “Sois Belle et
Tais-Toi” (“Be Beautiful and Shut Up”), directed by Delphine Seyrig, one of the great modern French actresses (and the star of Akerman’s 1975 masterwork, “Jeanne Dielman”). Seyrig interviews twenty-three actresses—including Jane Fonda, Viva, and Maria Schneider— about their work experiences. Her incisive questions, and the free-ﬂowing dialogue that results, yield vital observations regarding one prime idea: the cinema, run by men, produces movies that embody male fantasies. Many of the actresses Seyrig interviews say that, had they been men, they wouldn’t have become actors (many would have preferred to direct); most also say that they have never played a scene of a “warm relationship” with another woman. Fonda details the cruel plastic surgery that male producers urged her to get (she didn’t); Viva says that she never had a role that corresponded to her inner self. As these women express their anger and frustration, their regrets and their hopes, they are, ﬁnally, appearing in a movie in which they reveal the depth and the originality of their own character. —Richard Brody
COURTESY DORIANE FILMS
Mimi Chiola and Claire Simon, longtime friends, worked together on the biographical portrait-film “Mimi,” from 2003, which Simon directed.
1 NOW PLAYING
Darkest Hour How badly we need another Winston Churchill film is open to question. Nonetheless, Joe Wright’s contribution to the genre is welcome, largely because of Gary Oldman in the leading role. He seems an unlikely choice, yet the lightness of his performance marks it out from other attempts; this Churchill, oddly quick on his feet, with a hasty huff and puff in his voice instead of a low, slow growl, suggests a man in a hurry to fight. None too soon, for we are in the late spring of 1940, with the German war machine in full cry and Britain adrift until Churchill, to the alarm of many contemporaries, takes charge. Wright has a curious weakness for the overhead shot, be it of the House of Commons or of a landscape cratered by bombs, and the musical score sounds too plush by half. But Oldman is braced by his supporting cast. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Clementine Churchill, is witty as well as stalwart; Neville Chamberlain, as played by Ronald Pickup, has never looked graver or more aghast. Best of all is Stephen Dillane, as Lord Halifax, whom Churchill called the Holy Fox: cadaverous, principled, desperate for peace, and wrong.—Anthony Lane (In wide release.) F for Fake Orson Welles, who revamped cinematic narrative with “Citizen Kane,” took another three decades to revolutionize the documentary form with this 1973 movie—but he did so with such wily exuberance and breezy philosophical depth that the later achievement may prove even more enduring. The speculative marvel begins with Welles onscreen, performing magic tricks. He also shows the cameraman, François Reichenbach, who, like an impish puppet, turns up later as part of the story—which is mainly an inside-out documentary about the art forger Elmyr de Hory and the literary forger Clifford Irving, who fabricated Howard Hughes’s autobiography. Welles joins de Hory and Irving in Ibiza, where they are living, and reconstructs their strange stories while also surveying his own life. Welles films himself on location and at work in the editing room; his mercurial montage—multiplying angles and perspectives, streams of consciousness and visual asides—is one of his greatest creations. With meditations on Chartres Cathedral and Picasso, artistic drive and carnal passion, he turns matters of truth and fiction into a fun house of infinitely reflecting, self-magnifying, and selfconcealing mirrors.—Richard Brody (Anthology Film Archives, Feb. 2 and Feb. 6, and streaming.) A Fantastic Woman Sebastián Lelio’s new movie, set in Santiago, Chile, stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a young transgender woman who loves and loses. Then her real troubles begin. We never learn how she met Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a middle-aged man with a wife and family, but we know that he abandoned his former life for Marina, and we see them dining and dancing and planning a vacation together. Then, without warning, Orlando dies, and Marina discovers, to her horror, that she is forbidden—both by the family of the deceased and by the regulations that govern a conservative society—to grieve her beloved as she wishes. The movie is steady and controlled, and the heroine’s composure rarely cracks; only during a few brief excursions into fantasy and daydream is she granted any form of release. There is a tranquil nobility in Vega’s defiant performance, yet the story stays morally flat; her character is without blemish, whereas the response that she engenders, in other mourners and in persons of authority, earns noth-
MOVIES ing but the movie’s contempt. In Spanish.—A.L. (Reviewed in our issue of 1/29/18.) (In limited release.)
The Final Year The title of Greg Barker’s documentary refers to the last quarter of the second Obama Administration, which, far from winding down or tailing off, appears, in the film, to be seized by a fresh desire to get as much achieved as possible while the clock still ticks. The focus is on diplomacy and foreign affairs, and the main players, interviewed throughout the film, include Secretary of State John Kerry; Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications; and Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Power, the star of the show, is as open—as undiplomatic, you might say—in venting her exasperation with Russian activity in Syria as she is in sympathizing with the mothers of the Nigerian schoolgirls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. The movie trots around the globe, struggling to keep pace with the indefatigable Kerry, but the restlessness proves infectious, and even the weightiest themes, such as climate change, receive only fleeting attention. Halfway through, the plot tightens, as the 2016 election nears, and as the looming prospect of Donald Trump, initially scoffed at by the Obama team, becomes a clear and present danger. We know what happened next.—A.L. (1/29/18) (In limited release.) Hostiles In this drama, set in 1892, the director and writer Scott Cooper turns a classic Western setup into a Western-by-numbers. Christian Bale plays the grizzled Captain Joseph Blocker, the unwilling leader of a military convoy accompanying the aged and ailing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from a jail in a New Mexico fort to their Montana homeland. Blocker, a veteran of Wounded Knee, hates Native Americans but is ordered to protect Yellow Hawk, who fought there, too, against him. Early in the journey, the convoy picks up Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a homesteader who survived a Comanche raid in which her husband and children were killed. En route, the men of the group, including Yellow Hawk, fight for their lives against a diverse set of enemies—whites and Native Americans alike. Cooper dramatizes the relentless kill-or-be-killed ethos of Western life and the severe mental and moral toll that it exacts from all who face it. Yet the bare script seems written by telegram, reducing the characters to pieces on a historical chessboard, and the portentous pace and lugubrious tone of Cooper’s direction take the place of substance.—R.B. (In wide release.) The Insult Ziad Doueiri’s new film begins with a drainpipe and winds up with angry mobs and burning cars. The pipe is the cause of a brief exchange between two men, from different—or, as they see it, opposing— sides of the Lebanese divide. One is Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian who runs a garage, and the other is Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee who works on a construction crew. Both men, having wounded each other’s pride, find it almost impossible to back down, despite mollifying advice from their wives, and, once lawyers get involved and the media learn of the dispute, the quarrel bursts out of control. Much of the story, written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma, is set in courtrooms, where we are schooled in the past—not only in the individual histories of the protagonists but in the sufferings endured by their respective communities. With all the weight of these matters, the movie often feels clunky and didactic, grimly bent on balancing the argument; fortunately, there are
fighting performances—from Camille Salameh, as a mischievous attorney, and from El Basha, whose graven features tell a sorry tale. In Arabic.—A.L. (1/15/18) (In limited release.)
Lady Bird As writer and director, Greta Gerwig infuses this comedic coming-of-age drama with verbal virtuosity, gestural idiosyncrasy, and emotional vitality. The loosely autobiographical tale is set mainly in Gerwig’s home town of Sacramento, in the 2002-03 academic year, and centered on Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), self-dubbed Lady Bird, a senior at a Catholic high school whose plan to escape to an Eastern college is threatened by her grades and her parents’ finances. Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts), with whom she shares a candid complicity, is about to lose his job; her mother (Laurie Metcalf), with whom she argues bitterly, is a nurse who works double shifts to keep the family afloat. Literary and willful, Lady Bird infiltrates the world of rich kids and risks losing true friends; she dates a Francophile rocker (Timothée Chalamet) whose walk on the wild side is comfortably financed. Deftly juggling characters and story lines, Gerwig provokes aching laughs with gentle touches (Metcalf’s etched diction nearly steals the show), but her direction remains self-effacing until late in the film, when several sharply conceived scenes suggest reserves of observational and symbolic energy.—R.B. (In wide release.) Phantom Thread The role taken by Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s strange and sumptuous film— the actor’s final screen appearance, he has claimed— is, in every sense, tailor-made. He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer of the nineteenfifties, who, in the London house that he shares with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), creates immaculate dresses for a selection of wealthy women. As devout as a priest in his calling, he seems to resent any intrusion upon his professional peace, yet he invites a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) into his life as a model, and, eventually, as far more. The result is a pact as perilous and as claustrophobic as that between the guru and his disciple in Anderson’s “The Master” (2012), with the camera closing in remorselessly on stricken or adoring faces, and a strong tincture of sickness in the romantic atmosphere. All three leading players respond with rigor to this Hitchcockian intensity, and Reynolds— fussy, cold, and agonized—is a worthy addition to Day-Lewis’s gallery of obsessives. The costumes, every bit as alluring as you would expect, are by Mark Bridges, and Jonny Greenwood contributes a swooning score.—A.L. (1/8/18) (In wide release.) The Post The new film from Steven Spielberg, like his “Lincoln” (2012), is a solidly rousing act of historical re-creation. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, with Tom Hanks as its swaggering editor, Ben Bradlee. Most of the story is set in the early nineteen-seventies, at a vertiginous time for the nation and its capital. The so-called Pentagon Papers, obtained by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), unveil a reluctance, on the part of multiple Administrations, to inform the public about the true state of the Vietnam War. When the Times is prevented, by legal injunction, from publishing the Papers, the Post gets its chance to step in and continue the job; what will Graham do, given that further revelations will rock the very establishment of which she is such a doyenne? The movie is a little too confident of its own righteous stand (listen to the strenuous John Williams THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Showman Before making “Salesman,” their famous documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers, the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, directed this 1963 portrait of the wheeler-dealer film distributor and producer Joseph E. Levine, which covers similar ground but from the top down. After years as a hustling film booker in his native New England, Levine made a name with “Godzilla” and a fortune with “Hercules,” and is captured here at work masterminding the American release of “Two Women,” a film by Vittorio De Sica starring Sophia Loren, with a similar blend of savvy and hucksterism—as well as with an army of reps equipped with a modern industrial panoply of facts and figures. Loren is often around (one of her junkets opens the film), and her magical allure contrasts painfully with the grungy yet hard-nosed milieu that brings it to the screen. (So does Kim Novak’s; her cameo is clever, unvarnished, and electrifying.) Profiles of Levine in this magazine and elsewhere bring to light a flamboyant vulgarity that here, intensely aware of Albert Maysles’s probing camera, he keeps under wraps, but his lascivious grin as he describes Loren’s appearance suggests exactly where art and commerce intersect.—R.B. (Film Forum, Feb. 2.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was raped and killed by persons unknown. Many months on, the police, headed by Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), are no closer to finding the guilty party, and Mildred takes matters into her capable hands, renting billboards to advertise the woeful facts of the case. This makes her unpopular with the locals, but she doesn’t care, nor does McDormand hesitate to make Mildred intimidating, and at times unsympathetic, in her single-minded hunt for justice. You might think that someone as tough as Mildred would overwhelm the film, but the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, finds space for the growth of other characters, especially Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop, a mama’s boy, and a racist blowhard. Not that he sees the error of his ways; rather, through a series of events both fiery and farcical, he comes to understand that other ways exist. The movie is much funnier, in its blistered dialogue, than the grimness of the story might suggest, but viewers who like their mysteries wrapped up like a gift should probably look elsewhere. McDonagh draws committed performances from Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, and Caleb Landry Jones.—A.L. (11/13/17) (In wide release.) 24 Frames The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016, spent the last three years of his life on the thematically linked short films that are compiled in this, his final feature. The twenty-four segments, each about four minutes long, are animated versions of his own photographs, realized with computer graphics, and the results suggest playful inventiveness at a high emotional pitch. Most of the photos involve landscapes and are populated with animals (mainly birds), filmed in live action and grafted onto the photos. Kiarostami’s dramatic features often include scenes of incremental change, and here he turns that notion into an organizing principle: infinitesimal 12
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
changes in the images conjure a quiet, trancelike mood, and the lyrical dramas of animal life often suggest delicate refractions of Aesop’s Fables. The ratio of accomplishment is middling: about a third of the episodes are sublime, a third are clever, and a third are tedious. The best is saved for last—a reworking of a romantic scene from a classic Hollywood drama of the nineteen-forties in a conjoined setting of domestic comfort and the forbidding outdoors. Above all, the movie offers the mournful thrill of new methods that Kiarostami didn’t live to develop further.—R.B. (In limited release.)
Under Capricorn Alfred Hitchcock’s extravagantly romantic melodrama, from 1949—set in Sydney, Australia, in 1831—explores lurid new byways of his familiar obsessions. The intrigue begins when Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), a suave Irish ne’er-do-well,
disembarks there and is befriended by the roughhewn but wealthy Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a self-made “emancipist,” or freed convict. Sam’s wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), is a Victorian-era madwoman in seclusion who lives under the thumb of a domineering housemaid (Margaret Leighton) with designs on Sam. But Henrietta is also Charles’s cousin and childhood friend, and he makes her rehabilitation—and their emotional bond—his priority. Hitchcock unites elements of his earlier films “Rebecca,” “Suspicion,” and “Shadow of a Doubt” with a darting, swooping camera that he seems to have borrowed from Max Ophüls, but the theme of erotic degradation and dependency is entirely his own. Brazenly and suspensefully, Hitchcock draws the crucial line between lust and love, and, in a brilliant scene of mirrors and darkness, he evokes the ultimate danger—the loss of self—that sexual passion entails.—R.B. (MOMA, Jan. 31.)
ABOVE & BEYOND
Winter Village Bryant Park, renovated in 1992 to discourage crime and welcome midtown strollers, is now one of the city’s cherished winter destinations, hosting various activities around its seasonal ice rink. College Skate Nights offer two-for-one skate rentals with a school I.D.—themes include Mardi Gras and Battle of the Boy Bands. Scavenger hunts, pop-up shops, and the requisite family-friendly performances also dot the schedule; this week, a Winter Carnival brings back popular attractions including a silent disco and curling. (42nd St. at Sixth Ave. wintervillage.org. Through Feb. 4.)
1 AUCTIONS AND ANTIQUES
Works by the Old Masters are forever in fashion, or so Sotheby’s would have us believe this week, when it offers a series of sales featuring luminous views of Venice, voluptuous still-lifes, lively genre scenes, and the like (Jan. 31-Feb. 2). Partly owing to the Michelangelo exhibit at the Met, drawings are receiving greater attention than usual; the house mounts not one but two sales of such works, both featuring the holdings of private collectors. Another auction is devoted to canvases from the collection of Otto Naumann, a respected Upper East Side dealer who has decided to call it quits after several decades of catering to genteel tastes; the sale includes such works as a portrait of an old Castilian man serving wine, by the Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, and a mythological scene by the Italian artist Giovanni Baglione. The main Old Master auction contains pieces by such heavy hitters as Lucas Cranach the Elder (whose “Lucretia”—stiletto in hand—is one of the top lots), Velázquez, Canaletto, and Bruegel. (York
Ave. at 72nd St. 212-606-7000.) • As an addendum to its sale of European furniture and decorations (Jan. 31), Doyle will offer a group of Russian items, many of which (such as a small silver-and-gemstone icon) come from the personal collection of a Grand Duke—George Mikhailovich, a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I—who was executed by the Bolsheviks shortly after the Revolution. (175 E. 87th St. 212-427-2730.)
1 READINGS AND TALKS
Hudson River Museum This week, “Hotel de l’Etoil(e),” one of the wooden box sculptures made by the assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, is presented as the museum’s inaugural “object of the month.” The recently anointed assistant curator Ted Barrow kicks off a new series of monthly talks, in which he presents original research and observations on twelve objects throughout the year, selected from more than seventy thousand works in the museum’s permanent collection. (511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers. hrm.org. Feb. 3 at 1:30.) 92nd Street Y Robi Ludwig is a psychotherapist and author who has been reporting and commenting on medicine and psychology for two decades. Ludwig interviews the Rutgers professor Jocelyn Elise Crowley about her new book, “Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits,” which examines the growing number of divorces among couples aged fifty and older (according to the book, nearly one in four divorces in the U.S. is “gray”), and how factors such as health, child-rearing, and finances affect couples after decades of marriage. (1395 Lexington Ave. 92y.org. Feb. 5 at 7.)
ILLUSTRATION BY PABLO AMARGO
score), but the battle between hesitation and decisiveness is beautifully managed by Streep. With Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, and a lethally smiling Bruce Greenwood, as Robert McNamara, and delicious period costumes, starting with Bradlee’s striped shirts, by Ann Roth.—A.L. (12/18 & 25/17) (In wide release.)
FßD & DRINK
TABLES FOR TWO
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM MEBANE FOR THE NEW YORKER; ILLUSTRATION BY JOOST SWARTE
550 Third Ave., between 36th and 37th Sts. (646-998-3976)
The famed Shanghainese writer Wang Anyi once wrote that to understand the soul of Shanghai one must ﬁrst decipher the maze of its longtangs, the snaking alleyways of the city. “Something is ﬂowing in the longtang that . . . has nothing to do with things like history, or even unoﬃcial history,” the narrator of Wang’s novel “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” declares. “If the longtang of Shanghai could dream, that dream would be gossip.” If longtang gossip could be slurped and chewed, it might taste like the crab soup dumplings served at Little Alley, a Shanghainese restaurant that derives inspiration from that city’s distinctive architecture. “The dumplings are our pride and joy,” a smartly dressed waiter enthused. It’s easy to see why. The delicate layer of skin is thin enough to seem like a formality that only ups the intrigue. The best part of eating them is not so much getting to the succulent pork and crab inside as accomplishing mastery over the complicated moment of consumption: managing to eat one all at once without landing a second-degree burn—the ﬁlling comes bathed in a luxurious, superheated broth—is no minor feat. The most noteworthy items at Little Alley are the casual classics, Shanghainese
dishes deemed too plain for banquet tables but whose smells may be found wafting out of longtang windows on any given night. Begin with the honey kaofu, a spongelike appetizer made of soy-braised unpeeled wheat tossed with wood-ear mushrooms and peanuts. What presents as a homely tableau of brown, beige, and bronze tastes to Shanghai natives like a sweet holiday spent at home. In a longtang, the most festive dishes were always shared. The lion’s head—tender stewed meatballs, which, in Little Alley’s case, are stuﬀed with half a salted duck egg— would inevitably be passed among half a dozen families living in a single lane. So would the yan du xian, a rich winter stew made of ham, pork belly, tofu-skin knots, and fresh bamboo shoots, which emanates familial comfort but remains consistently absent from American menus. Taking in a spoonful one cold Saturday night, a Shanghainese woman in her twenties felt momentarily transported to a neighbor’s kitchen during Chinese New Year. “Shanghainese food is not fancy or bold or particularly pungent,” she mused, “but the mild ﬂavors have a way of layering on top of each other.” To her, the most surprising part of dinner was that Little Alley had landed smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. “If the longtang of Shanghai knew how far they’ve come,” she said, shaking her head, and then gingerly bit into another dumpling. (Entrées $16-$26.) —Jiayang Fan
1 BAR TAB
Double Down Saloon 14 Avenue A, at Houston St. (212-982-0543) Ass Juice, a rather unpleasantly named punch, is one of the specials at this Alphabet City dive. Ask a bartender, emerging from a trapdoor behind the bar, what’s in it. “It’s a secret recipe,” she’ll reply. Ask her what it tastes like. “It’s very sweet.” Horribly so—no wonder this establishment has a sign that reads “You puke you clean up.” The concoction is also deceptively priced: one is four dollars, and two are nine. The ingenious valuation recently led a former hedge-fund manager to declaim, “It’s very New York!” Around him, a mix of yuppies and leather-clad locals clustered at the bar while televisions above them alternated between shots of rowdy concerts and graphic pornography. “Is that legal?” a drunk patron queried, of the questionable fare onscreen. Nearby, a man in a checked shirt took a swig from a can of Genesee beer and mumbled to his friend, “I’m more than just a back-end-data guy.” The jukebox is tuned to a near-constant stream of punk and hardcore, and the bathroom sports almost as much graffiti as CBGB’s did. It would be fair to say that the Double Down is pure Big Apple, even though the saloon’s roots are actually farther west, where its progenitor was founded, in Las Vegas. (Both bars are known for their bacon martinis.) Sure, it has machines—a Day-Glo claw crane sits in the front and there are a couple of pinball games in the back—but these aren’t so much Sin City as remnants of a vanished world. As a European music-head said, “This is one of the last spots of the true East Village punk scene.”—Nicolas Niarchos THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
THE TALK OF THE TOWN COMMENT FIRING OFFENSES
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM BACHTELL
t some point in the next few weeks A or so, unless President Donald Trump stages a constitutional crisis— something that, given his habits, can hardly be ruled out—he will almost certainly have to take questions from Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. The details—whether the interview will be in writing or in person, and, if the latter, where it will be, who will be present, and whether it will be recorded on video— have yet to be settled. (Replies via Twitter will presumably be disallowed.) “I would love to do it,” Trump said last Wednesday, just before leaving for Davos, “subject to my lawyers, and all of that.” That is a signiﬁcant caveat: on Thursday, the Times reported that, last June, Trump decided to ﬁre Mueller, but was held oﬀ from doing so by the White House counsel, Don McGahn. (“Fake news, folks,” the President said, in response.) The conditions of Mueller’s employment are not incidental to his investigation. His most consequential questions for Trump might not be about Russian inﬂuence over American voters but about the power that the President of the United States believes he has to control, or to abrogate, the rule of law. To that end, Mueller might ask Trump why he has, or has not, ﬁred various people. He might start with James Comey, the former director of the F.B.I., who was running the inquiry last May, when Trump dismissed him. Trump gave sev-
eral explanations, before oﬀering that “this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia” was “a made-up story” and that Comey was “a showboat.” Trump’s ﬁring of the man who was investigating a matter that involved his campaign is what made the appointment of a special counsel inevitable. Now Mueller has the capacity to look not only at the Russia case but also at other malfeasance he may ﬁnd along the way, including possible ﬁnancial crimes and, in particular, obstruction of justice. Mueller also will likely ask Trump why he ﬁred Michael Flynn, his ﬁrst national-security adviser, and what assurances he might have given him at the time. Flynn was already in legal jeopardy, because he had hidden his contacts with Russians and because his lobbying ﬁrm had taken money from Turkish interests without reporting it. Comey
testiﬁed that Trump nonetheless asked him to go easy on Flynn. Mueller has now reached a deal with Flynn, under which he pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., and attested that some of his contacts were directed by at least one member of Trump’s transition team. Trump has also suggested, at various times, that he was close to ﬁring Attorney General Jeﬀ Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation because he had been part of the campaign. (Sessions had his own problems, after making misleading statements to the Senate about his Russian contacts.) Indeed, Trump has said that, had he known that Sessions would recuse himself, he never would have appointed him. Does the President imagine that the job of the Attorney General is to protect the law, or to protect him? Last week, the Justice Department conﬁrmed that Mueller’s team had interviewed Sessions. They also reportedly spoke to Mike Pompeo, the head of the C.I.A., and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence. All were apparently asked whether Trump pressured them in regard to the investigation. If Mueller has these men’s statements in hand, he can see if Trump’s answers match theirs. The President might not care. He has said that he has an “absolute right” to control the Justice Department and “complete” pardon power. Speaking to reporters last week, he mocked his critics: “Did he ﬁght back? . . . Ohhhh, it’s obstruction.” Often, for Trump, ﬁghting back has meant just saying that everything is Hillary Clinton’s fault. Indeed, if Mueller gets Trump talking about Clinton, it THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
will be hard to get him to stop. When one reporter asked Trump if he would be interviewed under oath, he noted that Clinton had not been when the F.B.I. questioned her about her e-mails. But lying to federal investigators can be a crime whether you’re under oath or not. Trump has complained all along that the Russia investigation is just a Clintonite plot, and, aided by congressional Republicans, he has been remarkably willing to attack the F.B.I. as an alleged co-conspirator. Recently, the President has been tweeting about what he calls the case of the “FBI lovers.” Last year, Mueller took a senior agent, Peter Strzok, oﬀ the investigation after learning that he had sent anti-Trump texts to an F.B.I. lawyer, Lisa Page. They do sound disappointed by Trump’s election. (“Omg I am so depressed.”) But when, last week, Senator Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, pointed to an obvious joke about a “secret society” in the texts as evidence of a
corrupt pro-Hillary cabal in the Bureau, it was a reminder that, as the G.O.P. strains to protect the President, something in the Party has broken. Meanwhile, Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, spent the week talking up a memorandum that the committee staﬀ had put together.Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina, who spent years wandering the byways of the Benghazi aﬀair, was also involved. The memo was shared only with House members, and reportedly alleges that the Russia investigation is tainted at its core, because, in an application to surveil Carter Page, a Trumpcampaign associate, the F.B.I. made use of a dossier that had been partly paid for by the Clinton campaign. The memo, which Democrats claim omits key information, is said to attack Comey and Andrew McCabe, the Bureau’s deputy director. Trump, for his part, has been working to discredit McCabe on the
ground that his wife, who ran for oﬃce in Virginia, received campaign donations from a pac aﬃliated with Terry McAuliﬀe, the state’s then governor and a Clinton ally. “Terry is Hillary,” Trump said. In another turn, Axios reported last week that Sessions had tried to get Christopher Wray, the new F.B.I. director, to ﬁre McCabe; Wray refused. Trump’s strategy seems obvious: to create confusion, suspicion, deﬂection, doubt, and, above all, noise. But, if he does sit down with Mueller’s team, once the ﬁrst question is asked there will be an interval of silence that only the President can choose how to ﬁll. Will he try to turn the interview against Mueller? If Trump thinks that Mueller can be scared oﬀ by the prospect of being ﬁred, however, he will have misunderstood not only the laws that restrain any President but the terms of his own employment. This time, Trump could be the one to lose his job. —Amy Davidson Sorkin
SO THERE DEPT. RESISTANCE GENEALOGIST
“Someone called it ‘ancestor doxing,’” she said. “Please—it’s called journalism.”The grandmother of the Iowa Republican congressman Steve King—who has said that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—arrived at Ellis Island as a child, in 1894. Mendelsohn discovered that the great-greatgrandfather of the Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren—“Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye”—had been indicted for forging citizenship papers, in 1917. A Swiss ancestor of Lahren’s colleague Tucker Carlson—“Why does America beneﬁt from having tons of people from failing countries come here?”— came to America looking for work, in 1860. Mendelsohn started publishing entries from census ledgers, turn-of-thecentury news clippings, and memoirs shared among relatives. “The historical record doesn’t lie,” she said. Mendelsohn signed her tweets with the hashtag #resistancegenealogy, and the number of her followers nearly tripled. She isn’t used to the attention. At one point, she was retweeted by Katy Perry. “I have kids. They were freaking out,” she said. Some fans on social media have begun thanking Mendelsohn and her research staﬀ, but she doesn’t have one. “It’s me in my kitchen oﬃce, in my fuzzy slippers,” she explained.
Mendelsohn started dabbling in genealogy ﬁve years ago, after a friend launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about a Lower East Side matzo factory. Her mother had cousins who used to live on Rivington Street, so she Googled their names and found a listing from the 1940 census. (“You can search the census!”) One day, she discovered that her husband’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, had three living relatives in the U.S. “It was like bending the space-time continuum,” she said. Mendelsohn began moonlighting as a genealogist. She helped adoptees ﬁnd their birth parents, and volunteered her services to be bid on at silent auctions. “You have to know what you’re looking for,” she said. “People don’t understand that there was more than one Abraham Goldberg born in 1890 who was living in Brooklyn in 1910.” She had an aptitude for following the right trail. “It’s a bit like the game Concentration,” she said. “You have to be keenly aware of the cards you’ve seen and turned over.” Then Donald Trump came along. His Administration prefers to call familybased immigration by a more sinistersounding name, “chain migration.” Mendelsohn isn’t having it: “They’re telling the American people that chain migration is some new thing to be
Mendelsohn, a freelance writer Janceennifer based in Baltimore, has a low tolerfor bad faith. Last summer, after Stephen Miller, the White House senior policy adviser, went on television to support a bill that would penalize immigrants who didn’t speak English, Mendelsohn took to Twitter. “Miller favors immigrants who speak English,” she began. “But the 1910 census shows his own great-grandmother couldn’t.” Her tweet, which included a photograph of a census document indicating that Miller’s ancestor spoke only Yiddish, went viral. “It’s hilarious how easy it is to ﬁnd hypocrisy,” Mendelsohn said. “And I’m a scary-good sleuth.” Miller wasn’t the only person she skewered after scouring the Internet for clues. She searched articles in local papers for the names of anti-immigrant activists’ family members, then plugged the information into search engines (familysearch. org, ancestry.com), which gave her birth and death records and marriage notices. 16
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
afraid of. I’m saying, ‘Not on my turf.’” Last month, a White House oﬃcial named Dan Scavino said that chain migration was “choking” America. “He’s lucky, or unlucky, that he’s Italian,” Mendelsohn said. After researching a Sicilian adoption, she’d recently learned how to search Italian records. Several days after his pronouncement, she had a message for Scavino. “So Dan,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s say Victor Scavino arrives from Canelli, Italy in 1904, then brother Hector in 1905, brother Gildo in 1912, sister Esther in 1913, & sister Clotilde and their father Giuseppe in 1916, and they live together in NY. Do you think that would count as chain migration?” Mendelsohn doesn’t know exactly what she’ll ﬁnd each time she starts researching, but her forays into the archives are rarely suspenseful. “Every single one of these stories is going to end the same way,” she said. Mike Pence (Irish grandfather) isn’t all that diﬀerent from the President he serves (German grandfather). And #resistancegenealogy has a message for all of them. “Unless you’re Native American or you descend from slaves who were brought here against their will, you are an immigrant in this country, or you’re a descendant of an immigrant in this country,” Mendelsohn said. “I want to make it personal.” —Jonathan Blitzer
1 ON THE RUNWAY LEGACY WEAR
s far as revolutionary fashion goes, A Che Guevara has the T-shirt market covered. But the six daughters of Malcolm X—Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, Malikah, and Malaak— recently announced a clothing line, called Malcolm X Legacy, that rebrands their father’s message for the pussy-hat era, in the form of sweatshirts, hats, and T-shirts bearing slogans such as “By Any Means Necessary” and “A Man Who Stands for Nothing Will Fall for Anything.” “My father was always very clean-cut: suit and tie, wingtip shoes,” Qubilah, the second oldest, said the other
day. “He really never let his hair down.” The daughters are all in their ﬁfties now (Malikah and Malaak, twins, were born seven months after their father was assassinated), and legacy protection is a team eﬀort. “We all understand that our father’s reputation and image were misappropriated by the media in the nineteen-sixties,” Ilyasah, daughter No. 3, said. The most public-facing sister—she’s a motivational speaker and teaches a course on cultural pluralism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice—Ilyasah recently published “Betty Before X,” a children’s book that features their mother, Betty Shabazz, as a spunky girl hero. In 2014, she chided Nicki Minaj for repurposing a famous photograph of Malcolm holding a riﬂe to promote her single “Lookin Ass Nigga.” (“I was, like, Absolutely not!”) A few weeks ago, she attended a preview of “X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation,” an Oﬀ Broadway play by Marcus Gardley. She had seen an earlier incarnation with her students and had given notes. This time, her only pointer was for Roslyn Ruﬀ, the actress playing her mother: “She would never cross her arms.” The girls were raised in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, in a house that Betty bought from Bella Abzug. “My mother never talked about his death,” Ilyasah said. “She only talked about positive things.” Some parts of growing up were normal: summer camp in Vermont, a puppy the girls named Humphrey Gobark. Others were stranger, like having the Black Panthers follow them around for protection. “I knew that my father was powerful, but I didn’t know that all men weren’t powerful,” Ilyasah said. When she arrived for her freshman year at SUNY New Paltz, her classmates immediately nominated her to be cultural chairperson of the Black Student Union. “They had this expectation of me, but it wasn’t who I was,” she recalled. Luckily, the college oﬀered a class on Malcolm X. Her sister Attallah assured her, “You don’t have to pass a test to be Malcolm X’s daughter.” Qubilah had a similar experience at Princeton. “I was supposed to wear a beret and combat boots and dashikis, and when I didn’t arrive that way it was a bit rough,” she said. This weekend, Malcolm X Legacy will début a runway collection at Harlem Fashion Week. “Our online store is urban wear, but we’re hoping to segue into more fashionable items,” Qubilah said. She and
Gamilah (daughter No. 4) were sitting in a conference room in Harlem, to view a ﬁtting of the collection. Qubilah looked askance at Gamilah’s ankles, covered in bunchy tan nylon, and said, “Those are some old-lady stockings you have on.” “They glitter!” Gamilah said defensively. “You don’t see the gold?” Yvonne Jewnell, a young designer wearing a cowrie-shell-covered sweater, brought in a model wearing a black catsuit and lace-up boots. “We’re either
Ilyasah Shabazz going to do embroidery or silk screen of the Malcolm X crest over here,” Jewnell said, pointing to the front. The sisters hummed in approval. The model, Taiwo Aloba, put on a dark blazer over a black-and-white peplum. Jewnell said that, on the runway, she would pair them with a dress made out of T-shirts adorned with revolutionary quotes, along with some military touches, like a mandarin collar. “Where would the ‘X’ go?” Gamilah asked. “We would put the logo patch right in the back,” Jewnell said. “The silhouette of the peplum gives a feminine pop to it, but there are so many structural masculine elements.” Next: accessories. Jewnell showed a photo of a handbag prototype. “I thought that this kente print was a nice hint of African background, but not too in-your-face,” she said. Adinkra symbols will reference principles such as justice, unity, and self-preservation. “I also wanted to be careful about hem lengths and necklines,” Jewnell said. “I THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
want to be respectful of your message.” “Couture is couture—if you have the shape for it, wear it,” Gamilah said. “Now, let me ask you this: do you have a fullﬁgured model?” “We do!” Jewnell said. “I’m glad you asked. She’s fabulous. She’s from Philly. We’re putting her in the duster. She’s tall, with beautiful hips.” The sisters looked pleased. They called it a day, and emerged onto a rain-washed Malcolm X Boulevard. —Michael Schulman
1 DEPT. OF APPROPRIATION TO HELL AND BACK
hough better known as Richard T Hell, the punk-rock persona he created in the mid-seventies, Richard Les-
ter Meyers has spent more years as a small-press publisher and a poet than as a professional musician. In 1966, he arrived in New York, a prep-school dropout from Lexington, Kentucky, and started a literary magazine called Genesis : Grasp. He typeset some of the issues himself on a Varityper machine. He followed that with Fun, a folder of poetry broadsheets, all written by him. Meyers’s best writing, published under three diﬀerent noms de plume, Richard Hell, Ernie Stomach, and Theresa Stern, evokes the lushness of youth and its excesses. His work has improved as age has relieved him of having to be the living embodiment of a generation—the Dionysus of the East Village, shirtless in unbuttoned black jeans, as he appears in the booklet that accompanies a new fortieth-anniversary edition of “Blank Generation,” the seminal Richard Hell and the Voidoids album, from 1977. As a writer, Meyers hit a high point with his ﬁne 2013 memoir, with its Philip K. Dick-ish title, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.” His small-press publishing career was recently the subject of an exhibition at the White Columns gallery, in the West Village. The opening, on a cold Tuesday evening, was a reunion of sorts for the demimonde of the Max’s Kansas City era. Meyers, who has lived in the same East Twelfth Street walkup since 1974, 18
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
looked youthful. His iconic spiky coif was mostly still intact and unsilvered, though it lacked a bit of the original’s wispy, Bowie-ish glam. That epoch-making haircut, complete with wispy, Bowie-ish glam, was nevertheless present at the opening, on the head of a thirty-two-year-old man. “I do it myself, in the mirror,” he was overheard saying, when one of the oldsters asked. His outﬁt was a straight copy of Hell’s lounge-lizard look from “Blank Generation,” complete with tinted glasses. Danny Fields, the Ramones’ ﬁrst manager and a stalwart of the old Max’s scene, asked Meyers about the doppelgänger. “He wants to be me!” was all Meyers would say. When approached, the young man introduced himself as Kyle Void. He said that he was a poet, a small-press publisher, and a major Richard Hell collector. He was born Kyle Halstead, in Whittier, California, and ran away from home at sixteen, wanting to be Rimbaud. He ﬁrst learned of Richard Hell through his music, but he discovered Meyers’s poetry when he was twenty-ﬁve and in the middle of a crisis. “I wanted to die,” Void said. “But then I discovered Richard’s poetry, which is all very sunny-side-up eggs.” The following year, Void moved to New York, got a place on East Thirteenth Street, and started publishing a literary magazine called Merde, closely modelled on Genesis : Grasp, right down to the font used in a subscription form in the back. A broadsheet followed, Ha, by Bert Intestine, which strongly resembles Fun, and which Void typeset on a rare variation of a Varityper. (He found it online, and then tracked down a guy in Arkansas who could ﬁx it.) If, as Saul Bellow said, a writer is a reader moved to emulation, then Kyle Void, Meyers observed, “is a writer moved to apotheosis.” The younger man’s poetry, which he publishes under three diﬀerent names—Kyle Void, Bert Intestine, and Gertrude Hirsh—is a pastiche of lines that Meyers has written over the years. “It’s like Kafka mixed with Borges,” a gallerygoer said. Meyers has been aware of Void for a couple of years, but the two met only recently, over coﬀee. Did they discuss Void’s appropriation of Richard Hell’s style, poetry, music, and publishing career—of which he is now, in a sense, a curator?
Richard Hell “It never came up,” Meyers said. He added, “I love what Kyle’s doing. Even though it’s derived from what I did, it’s much better. I was ignorant, deluded.” Void recently published a special supplement to Merde devoted to Meyers’s latest work, “Untitled: Fiction and Some Poems.” It was a triumph for Void, if not for Hell, who wished to neither discourage his disciple (who is also his publisher) nor encourage him too much. When Meyers heard that Void is planning to end his Richard Hell project—“I’m going to do a ﬁnal issue about killing your idols,” Void said, and then move on to publishing contemporary poets—he approved. In a toast, Matthew Higgs, the curator of White Columns, introduced both Meyers and Void, calling them “collaborators.” But Meyers, who spoke next, corrected Higgs on that point. “Kyle is not my collaborator,” he said. He paused and added, “Kyle haunts me.” —John Seabrook
1 THE BOARDS CLOSE SHAVE
n a wintry weekday morning, the O actor John Lithgow stopped by Roosevelt Barber Shop, on the Upper West Side, for a hot-towel shave. The barber, who introduced himself as Ralph,
peered at his customer. “I think I know you. TV?” he asked. He pointed outside, to where Lithgow’s driver waited, and said, “Somebody in the car? It’s a noparking zone. No mercy on this side!” Lithgow was wearing a beret and a long overcoat. He hung these on a rack and sat down in one of the shop’s two chairs. There were mirrors on all sides. Ralph was wearing jeans, a down vest, and a beanie on top of a yarmulke. He grew up in the former Soviet Union, and spoke with an accent. “Well, all right,” he said. He lowered the back of the chair until Lithgow was almost horizontal: “So, one, two, three—I give you sleep time.” “Here we go!” Lithgow said. When Lithgow ﬁrst encountered Ring Lardner’s short story “Haircut,” about a small-town barber, he was a towheaded eight-year-old listening to his father read aloud from an anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham. Years later, toward the end of his father’s life, Lithgow picked up the same volume and returned the favor. (“A nasty little story by a gin-swilling cynic,” he calls it.) These days, he tells the tale of his father and “Haircut” in a one-man show, “Stories by Heart,” which he’s been touring around the country for a decade, and which recently opened on Broadway. The Lardner story, which Lithgow recites in its entirety, is narrated by a gossipy neighborhood barber, as he attends to a (silent, presumably horriﬁed) customer. Lithgow performs the piece without props, but he adds ingenious sound eﬀects, which he makes with his mouth: click, whoosh, swish, whish. “I didn’t used to make sounds—they just gradually crept in,” he said, stretched out in the chair. “There are about ﬁve diﬀerent distinct sounds I make, and many very distinct movements. Like what Ralph just did, cranking my seat back.” Ralph was at the sink behind Lithgow’s chair. On the wall was a print of an old-timey barbershop and a framed News article about a squirrel that eats pizza. Lithgow described how he’d put the bit together: “I went oﬀ looking for an old-time barber in Los Angeles, so that he could tell me all the details of an—” Ralph dropped a hot towel onto his face, and Lithgow’s voice grew muﬄed. “Intermission,” he mumbled.
• Ralph applied shaving cream and started to make short, silent strokes with a straight razor. A fan rattled; outside, a bus pulled away from the curb. “Here’s an interesting fact,” Lithgow began, as Ralph rinsed his blade. “No, you don’t say nothing,” Ralph said. “I’m working.” With Ralph still at the sink, Lithgow continued, “I found a barber in L.A., and who do you suppose recommended him? Larry Gelbart!” Ralph returned, and Lithgow closed his mouth. “I do this, you know what, since I’m seventeen. Twenty-ﬁve years I’m here,” Ralph said. “The old owner, he was here over forty years. Tony Bennett, the old owner was taking care of him.” “Tony Bennett came here?” Lithgow asked. “I have a couple of stars,” Ralph said. “Bruce Willis.” Talk turned to Ralph’s apprenticeship, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “Three months I was standing around my barber, my teacher, and he says, ‘O.K, a customer. Go put a cape on him but do nothing else.’ I said, ‘Come on! Even a crewcut?’” His voice got softer as he addressed Lithgow. “Now, you know what I’m asking? Open your mouth. Open, open, open—yes,” he said. He shaved the last bits of stretched cheek carefully, and then stood back, ﬁnished.
• “It’s like a baby!” he said. “A baby when you change diapers!” Lithgow touched his face: “Wow.” “Now I’m going to wake you up,” Ralph said. He slapped a clear liquid on Lithgow’s cheeks. “Ho-ho!” the actor yelped. “My God. Like having acid thrown on your face.” As Lithgow prepared to go, he asked, “Tell me, has your name always been Ralph?” “My Hebrew name is Rahamim. Like ‘mercy.’ Give me mercy!” he said, laughing. In his show, Lithgow pantomimes the actions of a barber in meticulous detail, and he had some questions for Ralph. “You didn’t strop your razor?” he asked. “Whish, whish.” “Those razors are now out, since 1980, when the AIDS started,” Ralph said. (What he’d used on Lithgow was a disposable blade called a Shavette.) “But I take care of my father with those. He’s ninety-two—World War Two survivor, Stalin prisoner.” Lithgow mimed stropping an oldfashioned razor. “No! Not like you’re doing,” Ralph protested. “You grab it and you go up! Up!” “Ah!” Lithgow tried again. “Whish, whish.” —Anna Russell THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
THE RECIPE FOR LIFE A father, a son, and their secret superpowers. BY MICHAEL CHABON
Some quirk in me enabled me to ride the bare rails of my father’s memory into the past. want to be a doctor, too?” the “ Y ou patient asks me, pushing up his
left shirtsleeve the way my father has instructed him to do. He is an older man with jowls and a silvery crewcut, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a necktie, and he is pinned to a kitchen chair by the boulder of his abdomen. The tap drips water into a cup in the kitchen sink. The smell of the patient’s dinner lingers, raw meat and fat against cast iron. When I don’t immediately reply to his question, the patient looks up at my father, who has come to his home this evening to conduct an insurance physical. My father reaches into his black bag for his sphygmomanometer, unrolls 20
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
the cuﬀ, and uncoils the rubber tubing. Like many young doctors not long out of medical school, he supplements his income with these in-home exams. After putting in a full day as a pediatrician at the Phoenix Indian Hospital, where he has been posted by the U.S. Public Health Service, he comes home just long enough to shower and shave for a second time, change his shirt and tie, and grab a quick bite. Then he heads back out to perform exams for one of the big insurance companies, often taking me with him. Sometimes, as we did earlier tonight, we forgo dinner at home and stop at our favorite restaurant, a Mexican place called Ricardo’s. “Cute little guy,” the patient says to
my father in a conﬁdential tone, then calls to me, parked in a corner on another kitchen chair, “You want to be a doctor, eh? Just like your daddy?” Trying again—maybe I didn’t hear him the ﬁrst time. I take my sphygmomanometer out of my black bag. Unlike my father’s, with its rubberized canvas cuﬀ, sturdy squeeze bulb, and steel-and-glass gauge, mine is made entirely of brightly colored thin plastic, like my Taylor hammer, my otoscope, my syringe, and the stethoscope that I wear dangling like a pendant necklace, the way my father does, with the earpieces pincering my neck. My black bag is plastic, too, a ﬂimsy, lightweight aﬀair with none of the pachyderm heft and dignity of my father’s. The mouth of my father’s bag opens and closes smoothly on the hinges of a secret armature, clasped by a heavy brass tongue that slides home with a satisfying click. Mine pops open when you ﬂip a plastic tab that has begun to shear loose and will soon snap oﬀ. A vial of candy “pills” was the sole advantage that my black bag possessed over my father’s, but I have long since prescribed and administered them to myself. The empty vial rolls around at the bottom of the bag. I hunch my shoulders, racked with the dreadful hope that the patient will invite me to come over and “check” his blood pressure. I squeeze the bulb of my gimcrack instrument. I don’t feel that the word “cute” suits either me or the gravity of the situation. On my previous outings, a few patients have allowed me to pretend to stick them with my needleless needle and to hear their heart beat through my sham stethoscope. There is nothing that I want more than for my presence to be taken seriously, and nothing that can render me more painfully aware of my fraudulence. The truth is, I don’t especially want to be a doctor when I grow up. Or, rather, I’ve come to understand that while my presence at these house calls may be cute, or amusing, it is in no way promising: I know that I am not really cut out for the job. Based partly on direct observation and partly on his tales of his own medical prowess, I have already formed the impression that my father is an excellent doctor. Though he will, in other ways, disappoint, disillusion, or unfavorably surprise me in the coming ILLUSTRATION BY GREG CLARKE
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B E S T AVA I L A B I L I T Y W E E K DAY P E R F O R M A N C E S THE BAND’S VISIT MUSIC & LYRICS BY DAVID YAZBEK BOOK BY ITAMAR MOSES BASED ON THE SCREENPLAY BY ERAN KOLIRIN DIRECTED BY DAVID CROMER
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decades, this impression will stand. In his hospital tales, my father stars as a ﬁrst- rate diagnostician with a nearHolmesian power for inferring rare or easily missed pathologies from the slightest of symptoms. As a small boy, I have no way (and no desire) to disprove these claims; I have to take his word for them. (Though I have observed that, whenever a patient on a TV show like “Marcus Welby, M.D.” or “Ben Casey” presents with odd symptoms, my father always makes what proves to be the correct diagnosis long before the ﬁrst commercial break.) But I have been an eyewitness to a number of displays of my father’s other remarkable skill as a doctor, one that mysteriously is never the focus of his storytelling: an uncommon gift for reassurance, for making his patients feel that he registers and sympathizes with their pain or discomfort and their anxieties about treatment itself; that he is really listening to them, really seeing them. Later in life, I will encounter and come to understand other self-centered people capable of great feats of empathy if only within certain narrow yet powerful contexts—while writing novels, say—but for the moment I cling to the misguided hope that the ray of my father’s compassionate attention will one day be directed toward me. (Unless I am gravely ill or seriously injured—and I am almost never either of those things—I don’t even rate the bedside manner. My father’s response when I cut a ﬁnger, stub a toe, twist an ankle, or fall oﬀ my bicycle never varies: “We’ll have to amputate.” When a suture or two is probably called for, he makes do with butterﬂying a pair of Band-Aids; when, a couple of years from now, I fall oﬀ a stair railing and break my arm, he sets it with an ACE bandage and a ﬂat plastic tool for scraping ice oﬀ our windshield.) Both my father’s bedside manner and his diagnostic chops depend, however, on his fundamental superpower, which is that, as far as I can tell, he knows everything. His memory is profound, his command of facts sweeping and indiscriminate. He knows the genealogies of English kings, the birth names of all ﬁve Marx Brothers, the Köchel numbers of the major works of Mozart, the batting averages of the top-ten all-time hitters 22
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
in both leagues, the diﬀering eﬀects on Superman of the various colors of Kryptonite. He has read every important book, seen every major ﬁlm, listened to every great symphony. When we listen to classical music in the car, he whistles ostentatiously along with even the most complex and atonal themes. He remembers people’s names, details, and particulars. When examining an anxious young patient, he is able to call not only on large swaths of medical knowledge but on a disarming command of pop-cultural information that helps put both children and their parents at ease: he knows the name of Underdog’s archenemy (Simon Bar Sinister) and of Barbie’s little sister (Skipper); he keeps up with the intricacies of daytime soap operas and baseball box scores. There is really no point, I have already decided, in even trying to pass myself oﬀ as a doctor, a would-be doctor, or a pint-size future version of my father. No matter how hard I try, and this is an assessment my father seems to share, I will never know as much as he does or be as intelligent as he is. “You are a very smart boy,” he has informed me, a few times now, after I came out with some unexpected fact or precocious bit of perception. “Of course, you’ll never be as smart as me,” he always adds, smiling in a way that seems apologetic and mocking at the same time. “Following in your footsteps?” the patient says, trying my father again, talking a lot—nervous, perhaps. At ﬁrst, my father doesn’t answer. When I’m older, he will explain that he
used to bring me along to these appointments because the presence of a small child was an icebreaker for anxious patients in a potentially awkward social situation, but in hindsight this strikes me as improbable. It strikes me now that he may simply have wanted my company, or felt guilty about working evenings after having spent his whole
day in the company of other people’s children. Or maybe he just liked to show me oﬀ, or show oﬀ to me. He had schooled me, for example, to name the Presidents in order, from Washington through L.B.J. Often, during the insurance physicals, he would call on me at some point to perform this, or one of my other circus acts of memory—U.S. state capitals, Canadian provincial capitals. These feats may not have broken any ice, but they unquestionably reﬂected well on his own abilities, both as a rememberer himself and as a skilled trainer of children. “Like father, like son?” the patient adds helpfully. My father has ﬁtted the earpieces of his stethoscope to his ears. He slides its diaphragm under the blood-pressure cuﬀ. One eyebrow arched, he listens to the patient’s pulse with an expression of calm intensity that to this day remains the badge, in my imagination, of an engaged and curious mind. A few years later, I will watch Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock, look up from his scanner on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and catch an echo of my father’s face. “I don’t know about that,” my father replies ﬁnally, uncuﬃng the patient’s arm. “He might be a little too squeamish.” This is a new word to me, but I grasp its meaning immediately. Doctors stick people with needles, cut them open, take their blood, lay bare their bones and organs. Inevitably, doctors—even doctors with gentle and reassuring manners, like my father—inﬂict pain. “Is that right?” The patient looks at me. (In my recollection of that night, I see from his expression that I have disappointed him, but maybe what I saw on the patient’s face was only baﬄement: if I didn’t want to grow up to be a doctor, then why was I in the man’s kitchen at seven o’clock on a week night, with a doctor’s bag?) “So, what do you want to be?” I think back to the conversation my father and I had earlier in our booth at Ricardo’s. Ricardo’s is the only Mexican restaurant I have been to at this point in my life, Mexican restaurants being nowhere near as commonplace then as they are now, so I have no point of comparison, but decades later, living in California, I will come to understand that Ricardo’s was a Mexican restaurant of
the old school: half-elegant, red Naugahyde and dark wood trimmed in wrought iron, a throwback even then to an era when white people thought of Mexico as an exotic land inhabited by cacti, burros, men in sombreros, and Lupe Vélez. For my father, a Brooklyn boy, there was still something romantic in 1967 about tacos and tamales. To me, there was a solemnity in the iron-andwood interior, the chill, the shadowed booths. Meals there took on an adult air of signiﬁcance. At the front of the restaurant, the cashier sat behind a glass display case, well stocked with candy, gum, cigarettes, and, especially, cigars, laid out in ornate and colorful boxes that depicted great generals and queens, gods of ancient Egypt, Indians in full regalia. Over our dinner tonight, my father remarked that, when he was a boy, almost every decent restaurant had featured a cabinet of wonders of this kind; now almost none of them did. This observation prompted me to ask him other questions about the world of his boyhood, long ago. He told me about the Elevated trains of Brooklyn, about the all-day programs at his local movie theatre: a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial, a comedy short, the B picture, and, ﬁnally, the A picture, all for a dime. He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the ﬁrst time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, ﬁve pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding. In the air-conditioned red darkness of Ricardo’s, across from the cigar case,
“I’m making moatmeal. Do you want some?”
• the past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow. My father, an inveterate listmaker, rattled oﬀ the names of games, trains, and radio shows, giving little in the way of description, yet it all came to life for me, as gaudy and vivid and fragrant as those boxes of cigars. Some quirk in me, in the wiring of my brain or the capability of my heart, enabled me to ride the bare rails of my father’s memory beyond the minimal contours that he hastily sketched—we had a patient to get to—and into the past. In
• my mind, in what I was just coming to understand, without even putting a name to it, as my imagination, I felt that I was or had been present on Flatbush Avenue for these moments of his vivid, vanished childhood. I did not know how I was managing the trick or what it might be good for—I was not even necessarily aware that I was doing it—but I knew immediately that this was my secret superpower. Fair enough. So, what do I want to be? How to answer the patient, who is now taking long slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the drum of the stethoscope makes checkers THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
moves across his back. I put away my plastic sphygmomanometer and snap the ﬂimsy clasp of my counterfeit black bag. Let my father be the doctor—when I grow up, I want to tell the patient, I will become a guy who gets to live both inside and outside his own mind and body, travelling, without moving, into other worlds, other places, other lives. But I don’t know quite how to put it, or exactly what kind of work the proper deployment of my superpower might suit me for or entail. “I’m probably going to be a mad scientist,” I announce to the patient, to my father, and, a little wonderingly, to myself. “And make the original recipe for creating life on earth.” ifty years on, though my father has long since retired from regular practice both as a doctor and as a father, I’m still chasing after that recipe for life and still, four times a father myself, doing part-time work as a son. At this point, to be honest, being my father’s son is less than a sideline; it’s more like a hobby, one of a number of pastimes acquired early, pursued with intensity, laid aside, and then only intermittently, over the years, resumed—origami, cartooning, model building, being a baseball fan, being a son. I think of my father at least once a day, try (but fail) to call him once a week, and, as required, aﬀord him regular access to his grandchildren. Beyond that, the contours of the job turn vague and history-haunted. Outside the safe zone of our telephone calls, with their set menu of capsule ﬁlm and book reviews, amateur political punditry, and two-line status reports on the other members of our respective households, the territory of our father-and-son-hood is shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure, strewn with the bones of old promises and lies. Strange how a relationship—the relationship—that I understand as truly primal, as foundational, for good and for ill, to the construction of my self, my world view, my art, and my approach to being a father, should for decades now have consisted of and subsisted on a studied avoidance of any but the most ancillary and weightless interactions! And yet it’s in my capacity as his son that I board a ﬂight from Oakland to
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Portland, Oregon, home to my father for the past seven years, travelling on a full-fare last-minute ticket, hoping that he’s still alive when I get there. The day before yesterday, my father fell so ill, so suddenly, that he consented—for the ﬁrst time that anyone could remember—to being hospitalized. “A hospital,” he always says, “is the worst place to be sick.” He’s home again for now, but I have been given reason to believe that if I want to see him again—and, of course, at the moment, seeing him is all I want to do—I’d better not hesitate. When the plane lands, I take my phone out of airplane mode with a sense of dread and dramatic irony, but there’s no fatal text message. I rush over from PDX to the apartment downtown, messaging with my stepmother and my half brother all the way. When I called to say that I would be ﬂying up to see him, my father made the expected but unexpectedly feeble attempt to dismiss my urgency as baseless and my visit as gratuitous, yet, as soon as I walk into the bedroom, I can tell he is happy to have me there. Although he seems to be out of danger for the time being (and will make a decent recovery from what eventually gets diagnosed as a nasty combination of kidney failure and bronchopneumonia), he freely acknowledges that he just came very near to death. “The day before yesterday was bad,” he admits. “According to your stepmother, I was raving. Saying a lot of things that didn’t make sense.” “How could she tell the diﬀerence?” “That’s exactly what I said.” I lie down beside him on my stepmother’s side of the king-size bed. The ﬂat-screen television mounted on the opposite wall is tuned to TCM, which happens to be showing a ﬁlm I ﬁrst saw with my father, when I was eleven or twelve: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Every few minutes, my father is racked by spasms of gnarly-sounding coughing that leave his voice a ragged whisper; if he taxes it for more than a sentence or two, whatever he says dissolves into a ﬁt of hacking and gasping for breath. It seems best, therefore, to avoid conversation entirely. We lie there for a long time, contemplating Lang’s quaint dystopia as it silently unravels. In the ﬁftyfour years of our mutual acquaintance,
I cannot remember our ever having sustained so prolonged a silence in each other’s company. It turns out to be not the worst way to spend an hour of your life. But after a while I ﬁnd myself thinking about the conversation we aren’t having. I start having it with him in my head: This is a great ﬁlm, but “M” is the masterpiece. I just saw it again: incredible. But what about “Dr. Mabuse”? A great ﬁlm, too, but I think you have to give it to “M.” Have you ever seen “Hangmen Also Die!”? A long time ago. I never really cared for the Hollywood ﬁlms. You know Thea von Harbou was a Nazi. Yeah. Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party. Hey, that would make a great sitcom.
The cadence, the tenor, the content of the conversation are all so readily accessible to my mind’s ear that they come unbidden, as clearly and freely as if we were speaking the words aloud. I wonder how long it has been since the last time we did this—just lie around in the middle of the afternoon watching a great movie together. I decide that the answer is probably something in the neighborhood of forty years. And then, equally unbidden, comes a thought: This is how it will be when he is gone. I will be lying on a bed somewhere, watching “Citizen Kane,” or “A Night at the Opera,” or “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” or some other ﬁlm that became beloved to me through my father’s own loving intervention, and, even though he won’t be there anymore, I will still be watching it with him. I will hear his voice then the way I am hearing it now, in my head, this instrument that was tuned to my father’s signal long ago, angled to catch the ﬂow of his information, his opinions, all the million great and minor things he knows. After he’s gone into that all too imaginable darkness—soon enough now—I will ﬁnd another purpose for the superpower that my father discovered in me, one evening half a century ago, riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited. ♦
SHOUTS & MURMURS
product, minimal standards for appropriate behavior by men in power. Laissez-Faire Parenting
Unlike American helicopter parents, French women are laid-back about raising children. They believe that being a parent, unlike being a male supervisor, should be hands-oﬀ. Not Shaving
French women accept that body hair is a natural part of life, just like a boss unzipping his pants in the oﬃce, or the refusal to pronounce consonants at the end of words. Invest in Statement Pieces
A French woman knows that every wardrobe needs a few high-quality pieces, like a little black dress paired with a 14k. gold rape whistle. Statement jewelry always works, especially when the statement is “Oh, my! You look handsome in that bathrobe!” Don’t Be Afraid to Indulge
HOW TO DISMISS HARASSMENT LIKE A FRENCH WOMAN BY RIANE KONC
few weeks ago, Catherine Deneuve A wrote an open letter, signed by a hundred other French women, calling the #MeToo campaign a “witch hunt.” Brigitte Bardot also attacked the movement, claiming that actresses who complain of sexual harassment are only looking for publicity. “The vast majority are being hypocritical and ridiculous,” Bardot told the magazine Paris Match. Would you like to be able to dismiss an epidemic of sexual harassment just like these powerful French women? Here’s how!
French women don’t publicly demonstrate their dismissal of how women have historically been treated by men in power by making one giant hashtag statement. They make dozens of small, idiotic statements throughout the day.
Unlike Americans, many of whom speak only English, the French woman knows multiple languages. So, while an American might naïvely think that “no means no,” the multilingual French woman knows that nee means no, and nein means no, and non means no, but, most important, “no” generally means “Unless you insist—I don’t want to seem like a prude!”
A French woman isn’t afraid to treat herself. Chocolate? Foie gras? Champagne? Yes, please. Do you know what she doesn’t indulge in? Self-reﬂection about the ways in which her ill-timed op-ed might be adding to the problem. Also: American cheeses! French Women Really Know What It Is to Be Voiceless
(A mime desperately tries to break out of a glass box.) Escargot
For some reason, celebrated French women keep making tone-deaf statements challenging the existence of harassment and abuse. If we really want to ﬁgure out why, doesn’t it feel sort of irresponsible to not at least look into the whole eating-snails thing?
Oui Means Oui
A French woman would never blame a victim of harassment for wearing a low-cut blouse or a tight skirt. She would blame her for wearing a low-cut blouse that is a poly-cotton blend.
A French woman is never more at ease than with a silk scarf encircling her neck, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and a baguette tucked under her arm. She has a certain je ne sais quoi, the same kind of feeling that an American woman might have when men ﬁnally stop being—how you say— super rapey.
The French woman embraces minimalism: minimal makeup, minimal hair
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
THE WORLD OF BUSINESS
THE HAPPINESS BUTTON Customer satisfaction in the emoji era. BY DAVID OWEN
HappyOrNot’s terminals have logged more than six hundred million responses. n 2016, a European gas-station chain Istartup, hired HappyOrNot, a small Finnish to measure customer satisfaction at its hundred and ﬁfty-plus outlets. One gas station rapidly emerged as the leader, and another as the distant laggard. But customer satisfaction can be inﬂuenced by factors unrelated to customer service, so, to check, the chain’s executives swapped the managers at the best and worst performers. Within a short time, the store at the top of the original list was at the bottom, the store at the bottom was at the top, and one of the managers was looking for work. By the standards of traditional market research, HappyOrNot’s analysis was simplistic in the extreme. There were no comment cards, customer surveys, focus groups, or reports from in26
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
cognito “mystery shoppers.” There was just crude data collected by customeroperated devices that looked almost like Fisher-Price toys: freestanding batterypowered terminals with four big push buttons—dark green and smiley, light green and less smiley, light red and sort of frowny, dark red and very frowny. As customers left a store, a small sign asked them to rate their experience by pressing one of the buttons (very happy, pretty happy, pretty unhappy, or very unhappy), and that was all. What HappyOrNot’s gas-station data lacked in substance, though, they made up for in volume. A perennial challenge in polling is gathering responses from enough people to support meaningful conclusions. The challenge grows as the questions become more
probing, since people who have the time and the inclination to ﬁll out long, boring surveys aren’t necessarily representative customers. Even ratings on Amazon and on Walmart.com, which are visited by millions of people every day, are often based on so few responses that a single positive or negative review can aﬀect customer purchases for months. In 2014, a study of more than a million online restaurant reviews, on sites including Foursquare, GrubHub, and TripAdvisor, found that the ratings were inﬂuenced by a number of “exogenous” factors, unrelated to food quality— among them menu prices (higher is better) and the weather on the day the reviews were written (worse is worse). A single HappyOrNot terminal can register thousands of impressions in a day, from people who buy and people who don’t. The terminals are self-explanatory, and customers can use them without breaking stride. In the jargon of tech, giving feedback through HappyOrNot is “frictionless.” And, although the responses are anonymous, they are time-stamped. One client discovered that customer satisfaction in a particular store plummeted at ten o’clock every morning. Video from a closed-circuit security camera revealed that the drop was caused by an employee who began work at that hour and took a long time to get going. She was retrained, and the frowns went away. Last year, a Swedish sofa retailer hired HappyOrNot to help it understand a sales problem in its stores. Revenues were high during the late afternoon and evening but low during the morning and early afternoon, and the retailer’s executives hadn’t been able to ﬁgure out what their daytime employees were doing wrong. The data from HappyOrNot’s terminals surprised them: customers felt the most satisﬁed during the hours when sales were low, and the least satisﬁed during the hours when sales were high. The executives realized that, for years, they’d looked at the problem the wrong way. Because late-day revenues had always been relatively high, the executives hadn’t considered the possibility that they should have been even higher. The company added more salespeople in the afternoon and evening, and earnings improved. ILLUSTRATION BY JAVIER JAƒN
HappyOrNot was founded just eight years ago, but its terminals have already been installed in more than a hundred countries and have registered more than six hundred million responses—more than the number of online customer ratings ever posted on Amazon, Yelp, or TripAdvisor. HappyOrNot is proﬁt able, and its revenues have doubled each year for the past several years; its clients have a habit of inquiring whether, by chance, the company is for sale—signiﬁ cant accomplishments for a still tiny en terprise whose leaders say that their ul timate goal is to change not just the way people think about customer satisfac tion but also the way they think about happiness itself. he C.E.O. of HappyOrNot, Heikki T Väänänen, has the build of a longdistance runner, which he is, and the beard of a highschool sophomore. He was born in 1980, and grew up on a small dairy farm in the remote, bru tally beautiful lakeandforest region of central Finland. He and his wife live with their three children in Tampere, Finland’s secondlargest city. (It’s roughly the size of Lubbock, Texas.) The company is based there, too. “Tam pere has an amazing airport,” he told me recently, at HappyOrNot’s U.S. head quarters, in a onestory building in a corporate development in West Palm Beach, Florida. “From the airplane, you can see your car.” Väänänen got the germ of the idea for HappyOrNot when he was fourteen or ﬁfteen. He was shopping for com puter diskettes at a large electronics store and couldn’t ﬁnd anyone to help him. “I thought, O.K., in this location there are no people who are interested in cus tomers, but it’s a big company, so maybe there’s someone, somewhere else, who cares,” he told me. “But ﬁlling out sur veys isn’t something you can always do, so it came to my mind that maybe there could be an easier way to give feedback, and to send the data directly to people who are interested in the results.” He didn’t pursue that thought, but he didn’t forget it. During Väänänen’s second year in college, where he studied business, he and a few friends started a small com pany that mainly produced computer code for other small companies. Their
biggest customer was a creator of games for mobile phones, a brandnew mar ket that was easy to enter and growing fast. In 2004, the two companies merged, with Väänänen as the C.E.O. “That timing was perfect, because mobile games took oﬀ,” he said. “Soon, we were selling to Disney, Warner, LucasArts, Sega—all the big gamebrand owners.” In 2007, they were bought by a client. Väänänen stayed on but soon became restless. One day, he described his old feedback idea to Ville Levaniemi, who’d been a colleague in both of his previous ventures. Levaniemi thought the idea was so simple that someone must have done it already, and said he’d investi gate. “The next day, he came back to me and said, ‘Let’s resign immediately and start this business,’” Väänänen re called. They installed the ﬁrst Happy OrNot terminal in December, 2009, in a small grocery store in Tampere. “It was very exciting,” Väänänen said. “But when we left the store I told Ville, ‘Shit, what if, like, no one gives feedback?’ So we were guessing—maybe ten? maybe twenty?” By the end of the day, more than a hundred and twenty customers had used the terminal. “We saw that, if you make it easy, people will give feed back every day, even if you don’t give them a prize for doing it.” Finland is a good place to start a technology company. The semicollapse of Nokia—the Finnish telecommuni cations giant, which once dominated the global mobilephone market—left a pool of unemployed but highly capa ble hardware and software engineers. “When we came to the United States to do trade shows,” Väänänen said, “we saw that maybe thirty per cent of the people were Finnish, and it was, like, ‘Why are we meeting here instead of in Finland?’” A Finnish national program, called Tekes, gives grants to entrepre neurs. The grants start very small but grow as the recipients meet targets. HappyOrNot eventually received about a million euros in Tekes grants, and grew very fast. In early 2012, Väänänen and Le vaniemi hired Todd Theisen to help with international sales, an area in which they’d been having trouble. Theisen had grown up in the United States, and ma jored in international politics and Ger man studies. He then ran an English
language school in Germany for half a dozen years, married a Finn, and worked in sales and marketing for a Finnish ed ucationaltechnology company. He saw immediately what HappyOrNot was doing wrong. He told me, “Selling in Finland is a diﬀerent proposition from selling abroad, and it’s very diﬀerent from selling in America. Finnish cul ture is extremely modest and humble.” There’s an old joke that a Finnish in trovert looks at his shoes when he talks to you, and a Finnish extrovert looks at your shoes. HappyOrNot’s international break through came at Heathrow Airport. Passengers had been complaining that security workers there were rude and incompetent, and, as the 2012 Summer Olympics approached, the airport’s ex ecutives worried about the imminent inﬂux of international visitors. They po sitioned HappyOrNot terminals so that passengers could use them as they cleared security. The executives were now able to identify problem locations in real time, and security workers in lowrated areas could see when they were viewed as more annoying than colleagues in other parts of the airport. Very quickly, Theisen told me, Heathrow security’s overall passengersatisfaction scores rose by more than half. The Heathrow contract has been ex tremely important for HappyOrNot, since even today new clients often say that they ﬁrst noticed the terminals ei ther there or at an airport that installed them after one of its oﬃcials noticed them at Heathrow. The terminals haven’t reached the security area at Palm Beach International Airport, however—as I saw when I ﬂew back to New York after my visit to the company. I did see a sin gle sign, with a message from the Trans portation Security Administration which asked for feedback about T.S.A. Pre check: “Scan the code to tell us about your experience.” But the sign was pushed back against a wall, and no one who didn’t understand how to scan a QR code would have known what to do. What’s more, anyone who scanned the code, as I did, would end up with just a link to the T.S.A.’s general cus tomerservice Web page, on which, if they scrolled down far enough and clicked through enough options, they’d be able to ﬁnd and ﬁll out an (endless) THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
online form, on which they would be required to include their full name and e-mail address. As if!
n episode in the third season of the A TV show “Black Mirror” portrays a world in which people spend nearly all their time using their phones to rate virtually everyone else on a ﬁve-star scale. Lacie—a young woman whose obsession with her own rating is so extreme that she practices giggling in a bathroom mirror, while using gadgets installed in her eyes to click selﬁes—is trying to boost her rating in order to win a discounted rent on a fancy apartment. Soon, though, her rating plummets, following an argument with her brother, a temper explosion at an airport, and other stress-related misfortunes. In the end—after mug shots, eye-gadget removal, and conﬁnement in what appears to be a prison for people with zero stars—she rediscovers the meaning of life by engaging in an unfettered fuck-you ﬁght with another inmate. The social satire in the episode is pretty broad, but Lacie’s world is enough like ours to be thought-provoking. Nowadays, it’s probably impossible for a reasonably with-it American to get through an entire twenty-four hours without being asked to rate someone or something, or feeling compelled to give ﬁve stars and a tip to a Lyft driver who was actually pretty terrible but clearly needed the
work, or deciding to give a perfect score to a lousy online seller out of fear that otherwise the seller might give a less than perfect score in return. HappyOrNot is satisfying because you can use it eﬀortlessly and anonymously, without condemning yourself to a lifetime of targeted ads, and without adding still more monetizable information about yourself and your family to the world’s exponentially growing online hoard of permanently lost privacy. But Väänänen, Levaniemi, and Theisen have bigger ambitions. “Think of an airport,” Theisen told me. “If you’re a passenger and you’ve a bad experience in security, it can cloud your day. You’re pissed oﬀ, so you speak nastily to the salesperson at Starbucks, and they speak nastily to the next customer—it’s like a chain of events.” Studies have shown that patients have better health outcomes when the medical professionals who care for them listen thoughtfully and explain what they’re doing, and even that ﬂu shots are more eﬀective if people are in a good mood when they receive them. Many medical facilities have signed on with HappyOrNot, because the data generated by the terminals make it easy for them to identify problem areas. “Patients who are treated well stick to their treatment plans more,” Theisen said. “And doctors who admit their mistakes
and apologize for them are less likely to be sued for malpractice.” It’s also reasonably certain that, no matter what you do for a living, becoming less aggravating to others while you’re on the job is likely to make you and your co-workers more contented as well. “At the end of the day, we all care about how we’re treated,” Theisen said. Väänänen told me, “Basically, every time a customer uses our service, we can say that, based on the data, we are making the world a happier place.” This assumes, of course, that happiness is quantiﬁable, and that the human supply of it rises and falls, like oil in a tank. There’s some evidence to the contrary, since even people with no objective reason to complain about anything somehow manage to ﬁnd new ways to make themselves and others miserable. There are also situations in which measurement itself can lead to bad results. The Times recently published a story about a Veterans Administration medical center in Oregon that had boosted its “quality of care” ratings, as measured on a ﬁve-star scale, by turning away the sickest patients. Gathering those ratings had nothing to do with HappyOrNot, but the underlying issue applies to assessments of many kinds. Life wouldn’t necessarily be better if we all did the equivalent of teaching to the test.
2013, the people in charge of the I49ersnbusiness side of the San Francisco football team hired Moon Javaid to work on analytics. He had an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and, among other things, he’d worked for a health-care private-equity ﬁrm. When he arrived, the 49ers had just had three of their best seasons ever, including one in which they’d made it to the Super Bowl for the ﬁrst time in eighteen years. Nevertheless, Javaid decided that the organization ought to make a serious eﬀort to measure and improve fan satisfaction. He and his staﬀ created their own version of a standard National Football League postgame survey, rewriting existing questions and adding additional detail. “I wanted to be able to say to our I.T. guy, ‘Hey, our Wi-Fi didn’t score that well this week—can you ﬁx it?’” Javaid said. Many of Javaid’s colleagues were uncertain at ﬁrst about the value of postgame surveys, or any surveys, but when
the results began to come in they changed their minds. Al Guido, the 49ers’ president, pushed Javaid to gather data faster, and said that what he would truly like to have was feedback in real time. Javaid said that he didn’t think that was technologically possible, but soon afterward, during a business trip to New York, he saw a HappyOrNot device at J.F.K., and called the company. “We had HappyOrNot terminals here in the building within two weeks,” he told me. His staﬀ placed them at stadium entrances, at the exits from rest rooms, and at every concession stand. During the ﬁrst game the terminals were in operation, they recorded twenty thousand fan responses— about the same as the total number of surveys that fans had returned during the whole of the previous year. Theisen and I went to see Javaid this past November, a couple of hours before the 49ers’ game against the Giants. His oﬃce is on an upper ﬂoor of Levi’s Stadium, in Santa Clara, the team’s home since 2014. There was a miniature Cavaliers basketball hoop on the back of his oﬃce door ( Javaid is from Cleveland), an artiﬁcial putting green on the ﬂoor, and a big ﬁle drawer full of game balls, which he hands out almost like business cards. “Before HappyOrNot, I could tell you on Tuesday how our concessions had performed on Sunday,” Javaid said. “But now I was able to tell you the same thing on Sunday, and in ﬁfteen-minute increments, and I could give you the results by concession stand.” That was during the 2016 season. The team now has an app, developed by HappyOrNot and Layer, a business-communications company in San Francisco, that allows it to monitor results second by second. “You can’t do that with surveys,” Javaid said. “There are seventy thousand people in the building, and, even if you could somehow get them to answer in real time, it would be extremely diﬃcult to process the information.” By next year, Javaid’s staﬀ will have deployed a hundred and twenty terminals throughout the stadium. In Javaid’s oﬃce, I also met Julianne Jochym, a business-strategy analyst. “What we got from Layer is kind of a messaging app,” she said, demonstrating on her iPhone. If the proportion of negative responses suddenly rises at a particular terminal location, an employee can be dispatched to investigate. “You
can type a message, here, and also send photos,” she continued. “So they can let you know, Hey, this men’s room is out of paper towels, or this ﬂoor needs to be swept and here’s a picture, or this concession stand doesn’t have hot-dog buns.” On a large monitor on a wall of Javaid’s oﬃce, Jochym showed us several ways she’d devised to represent HappyOrNot data graphically, for presentation to other members of the organization. One was a stadium seating map on which the HappyOrNot terminals were identiﬁed by numbered, colored circles. “You can see all the terminals here, and you can move through the data hour by hour. The colors change as the ratings do.” The most consistently high-rated performer—even during the two most problematic periods for customer service, halftime and the fourth quarter—was a new vender, which, unlike most other venders, used the same, experienced work crew at every game. “Last year, a lot of the red”—the frowny, unhappy color—“was kind of in this area, down by this end of the stadium, and now that has kind of moved over here,” she continued. “So we know where our problem areas are, and we can focus on those.” n game days, fans begin to arrive at O Levi’s Stadium long before kickoﬀ, and then either hang out in the parking lot, which has its own venders, or wander through the stadium, drinking, eating, and buying stuﬀ. After our meeting in Javaid’s oﬃce, Jochym took Theisen and me on a pre-game tour. We watched a man in a 49ers T-shirt having his photograph taken with eight cheerleaders, and a woman in a Giants T-shirt having her photograph taken while sitting on a gold-colored plastic throne, which was connected in some way with Yahoo’s fantasy-football league. We walked through two of the stadium’s “clubs,” including one in which fans, for several hundred dollars more than the price of a regular ticket, can watch the game on large television monitors while eating ribs that are nearly the size of the ones that made the Flintstones’ car tip over. On the main concourse, Jochym reoriented a couple of HappyOrNot terminals that had been moved out of position. When I ﬁrst met Theisen, I asked him what would prevent a store man-
ager from standing next to a terminal and repeatedly pressing the smiley button, and he said that the devices have a brief reset delay, which blocks them from registering closely spaced multiple presses, and also that the most important information from any location comes from the number of frowny presses, which not even a dishonest employee would be able to undo. There’s also safety in numbers. At the stadium, I watched a youngish guy idly reach over and press the red button on a terminal as he walked past a concession stand that he hadn’t bought anything at: a false negative! But Theisen and Jochym were unconcerned. When you receive twenty thousand impressions in the course of a few hours, as the 49ers do, the signal-to-noise ratio is necessarily high. During the ﬁrst half, Theisen and I sat in nice seats on the ﬁfty-yard line. One of the stadium’s many fan-friendly amenities is ﬁfteen hundred Wi-Fi access points, mounted under seats; they can accommodate forty thousand people simultaneously streaming at LTE speeds. If anything goes wrong, Javaid and his staﬀ hear about it. (Frustration with bad Wi-Fi is a form of unhappiness that didn’t exist until relatively recently—raising the possibility that human satisfaction, over all, may be a zero-sum game.) Theisen used his phone to scroll through up-to-the-moment results from all sixty of the stadium’s terminals. He noticed nothing unusual, so we returned our attention to the ﬁeld. Later—as it began to seem likely that the 49ers were going to win their ﬁrst game of the season and the Giants were going to lose their eighth—we had to deal with an issue that San Francisco fans have complained about since Levi’s Stadium opened: late-afternoon sun, which frequently blasts people sitting on the east side of the ﬁeld. A young mother in the row directly in front of ours used a 49ers jacket to create a sun shield for her baby, who was asleep, and just about all the people wearing hats had pulled the brims down to shade their eyes. There wasn’t a button anywhere that I could push to register my feelings about any of that. But Theisen and I had passes that allowed us to sit pretty much anywhere we wanted, so we dealt with our unhappiness the old-fashioned way, by moving to seats on the other side. THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
ANNALS OF MEDICINE
THE DEATH DEBATE A hospital insisted that a young girl was dead. Her family disagreed. BY RACHEL AVIV
efore having her tonsils removed, Jahi McMath, a thirteen-year-old African-American girl from Oakland, California, asked her doctor, Frederick Rosen, about his credentials. “How many times have you done this surgery?” Hundreds of times, Rosen said. “Did you get enough sleep last night?” He’d slept ﬁne, he responded. Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkﬁeld, encouraged Jahi to keep asking questions. “It’s your body,” she said. “Feel free to ask that man whatever you want.” Jahi had begged not to get the surgery, but her mother promised that it would give her a better life. Jahi had sleep apnea, which left her increasingly fatigued and unable to focus at school. She snored so loudly that she was too embarrassed to go to slumber parties. Nailah had brought up four children on her own, and Jahi, her second, was her most cautious. When she saw news on television about wars in other countries, she would quietly ask, “Is it going to come here?” Her classmates made fun of her for being “chunky,” and she absorbed the insults without protest. A few times, Nailah went to the school and asked the teachers to control the other students. The operation, at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital, took four hours. When Jahi awoke, at around 7 p.m. on December 9, 2013, the nurses gave her a grape Popsicle to soothe her throat. About an hour later, Jahi began spitting up blood. The nurses told her not to worry and gave her a plastic basin to catch it in. A nurse wrote in her medical records that she encouraged Jahi to “relax and not cough if possible.” By nine that night, the bandages packing Jahi’s nose had become bloody, too. Nailah’s husband, Marvin, a truck driver, repeatedly demanded that a doctor help them. A nurse told him
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
that only one family member was allowed in the room at a time. He agreed to leave. Nailah, who worked in contractor sales at Home Depot, said, “No one was listening to us, and I can’t prove it, but I really feel in my heart: if Jahi was a little white girl, I feel we would have gotten a little more help and attention.” Crying, she called her mother, Sandra Chatman, who had been a nurse for thirty years and who worked in a surgery clinic at Kaiser Permanente, in Oakland. Sandra, who is warm and calm and often wears a ﬂower tucked into her hair, arrived at the hospital at ten o’clock. When she saw that Jahi had already ﬁlled a two-hundred-millilitre basin with blood, she told a nurse, “I don’t ﬁnd this to be normal. Do you ﬁnd this to be normal?” A nurse wrote in her notes that the physicians on duty were “notiﬁed several times over course of shift” that Jahi was bleeding. Another nurse wrote that the doctors were “aware of this post op bleeding” but said “there would be no immediate intervention from ENT or Surgery.” Rosen had left the hospital for the day. In his medical records, he had written that Jahi’s right carotid artery appeared abnormally close to the pharynx, a congenital condition that can potentially raise the risk of hemorrhaging. But the nurses responsible for her recovery seemed unaware of the condition and didn’t mention it in their notes. (Rosen’s attorney said that Rosen could not speak about Jahi; the hospital couldn’t comment, either, because of medical-privacy laws, but a lawyer said that the hospital is satisﬁed that Jahi’s nursing care was appropriate.) There were twenty-three beds in the intensive-care unit, spread over three rooms. A doctor was standing on the other side of Jahi’s room, and
For the past four years, Jahi McMath has
breathed with the help of a ventilator. A neurologist described her as “an extremely disabled but very much alive teenage girl.” PHOTOGRAPHS BY DOUG DUBOIS
Jahi at home with her family in January. “I knew that Jahi was in there,” her mother, Nailah, said. Sandra asked him, “Why aren’t you guys seeing about my granddaughter?” The doctor instructed the nurse on duty not to change Jahi’s hospital gown, so that he could assess how much blood she was losing, and to spray Afrin in her nose. Sandra, who teaches a workshop at Kaiser Permanente on the “four-habits model,” a method for improving empathy with patients, told me she was surprised that the doctor never introduced himself. “He was all frowned up with his arms crossed,” she said. “It was like he thought we were dirt.” At twelve-thirty in the morning, Sandra saw on Jahi’s monitor that her oxygen-saturation levels had fallen to seventy-nine per cent. She yelled to the medical staﬀ, and several nurses and doctors ran toward Jahi and began working to intubate her. Sandra said that she heard one doctor say, “Oh, shit, her heart stopped.” It took two and a half hours to restore Jahi’s heart32
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
beat and to stabilize her breathing. Sandra said that when she saw Rosen early the next morning he looked as if he’d been crying. wo days later, Jahi was declared T brain-dead. With the help of a ventilator, she was breathing, but her pupils did not react to light, she did not have a gag reﬂex, and her eyes remained still when ice water was dripped in each ear. She was brieﬂy disconnected from the ventilator, as a test, but her lungs ﬁlled with carbon dioxide. On an EEG test, no brain-wave activity could be seen. Like all states, California follows a version of the 1981 Uniform Determination of Death Act, which says that someone who has sustained the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” California law requires that hospitals permit “a reasonably brief period of accommodation” be-
fore disconnecting a ventilator—long enough to allow family to gather, but not so long that hospitals neglect the “needs of other patients and prospective patients in urgent need of care.” At a meeting with Rosen and other medical staﬀ, the family asked for an apology. According to a social worker’s record of the meeting, Rosen “expressed sympathy.” The family wasn’t satisﬁed. “Step outside your job,” Marvin told him. “This was totally wrong!” Sandra said that Jahi had not “got the treatment she deserved.” Over the next few days, a social worker repeatedly urged Jahi’s family to make a plan for taking her oﬀ the ventilator. She also recommended that they consider donating her organs. “We were, like, ‘Nah,’ ” Marvin said. “ ‘First, tell us what happened to her.’ ” The family asked for Jahi’s medical records, but they weren’t allowed to see them while she was still in the hospital. Nailah didn’t understand how Jahi
could be dead when her skin was still warm and soft and she occasionally moved her arms, ankles, and hips. The doctors said that the movement was only a spinal reﬂex, described in the medical literature as “a Lazarus sign.” An African-American critical-care doctor named Sharon Williams asked the hospital’s administration to give the family a little more time to grieve, expressing concern that taking Jahi oﬀ the ventilator right away “was not in the best interest of the family.” But, after a week, when their position still hadn’t changed, Williams asked to have a conversation with Sandra, “woman to woman.” Sandra said Williams told her that, if she waited too long to take Jahi oﬀ the ventilator, she wouldn’t look good for the funeral, adding, “You know how we are.” (Williams disagrees with Sandra’s description of the conversation.) “Who’s ‘we’?” Sandra remembers thinking. “We African-Americans? I felt so belittled. Yes, a lot of black children die in Oakland and people do have funerals for their children—but that don’t mean all of us are like that. Do you think we’re supposed to be used to our children dying, that this is just what black people normally go through?” She said, “At that point, I just lost all my trust.” ailah’s younger brother, Omari N Sealey, began sleeping in a chair next to Jahi’s hospital bed, to make sure no one could “kill her oﬀ.” He said, “I just felt her life wasn’t worth that much in their eyes. It was like they were trying to shoo us away.” A former baseball star at San Diego State University, he had a large following on social media, and on Instagram and Facebook he announced that the hospital was rushing them to unplug Jahi’s ventilator. “They are trying to feed us legal bull shit,” he wrote. “It’s not over until God say so.” In the comments section, one friend wrote, “This is universal chain of DISRESPECT!!!! FCK THIS HEALTHCARE SYSTEM!!!” Another wrote, “They either wana see us dead or in jail they don’t wana see us alive.” A week after the surgery, Sealey called a personal-injury lawyer, Christopher Dolan, and told him, “They’re going to kill my niece.” Dolan agreed
to take on the case pro bono, though he had no experience with legal issues involving the end of life. A selfdescribed “cafeteria Catholic,” he acted on a vague feeling that a child with a beating heart was not entirely dead. He wrote a cease-and-desist order: if doctors unplugged Jahi’s ventilator, he said, they would violate her and her family’s civil rights. Sealey taped the note to Jahi’s bed and oxygen monitor. In a petition to the Alameda County Superior Court, Dolan requested that a physician unaﬃliated with the hospital examine Jahi. He wrote that the hospital had a conﬂict of interest, because if its doctors were found guilty of malpractice they could “drastically reduce their liability by terminating Jahi’s life.” In cases of wrongful death, California places a cap of two hundred and ﬁfty thousand dollars on damages for pain and suﬀering. But there is no limit on the amount that can be recovered when a patient is still alive. In a separate motion, Dolan argued that the hospital was infringing on Nailah’s right to express her religion. He said that, as a Christian, she believed that her daughter’s soul inhabited her body as long as her heart beat. On December 19th, ten days after the surgery, David Durand, the hospital’s senior vice-president and chief medical oﬃcer, held a meeting with the family. They asked Durand to allow Jahi to remain on the ventilator until Christmas, suggesting that the swelling in her brain might subside. Durand said no. They also asked that she be given a feeding tube. Durand dismissed this request, too. The idea that the procedure would help her recover was an “absurd notion,” he later wrote, and would only add to the “illusion that she is not dead.” When they persisted, Durand asked, “What is it that you don’t understand?” According to Jahi’s mother, stepfather, grandmother, brother, and Dolan, who took notes, Durand pounded his ﬁst on the table, saying, “She’s dead, dead, dead.” (Durand denies pounding his ﬁst or repeating the word.) hree days before Christmas, a T group of church leaders in Oakland gathered in front of the hospital and asked the district attorney to investigate what had happened to Jahi.
“Is not Jahi worthy of the highest amount of medical treatment?” Brian K. Woodson, Sr., the pastor of Bay Area Christian Connection, said at a press conference. The next day, Evelio Grillo, a judge for the Alameda County Superior Court, appointed an independent expert, Paul Fisher, the chief of child neurology at Stanford University’s children’s hospital, to examine Jahi. During the hearing, two hundred people marched in front of the hospital, holding signs that said, “Justice for Jahi!” and “Doctors Can Be Wrong!” About a quarter of the protesters were Nailah’s friends and neighbors. She lived a short walk from her mother, who lived a few blocks from her own mother, who had moved to East Oakland from Opelousas, Louisiana, during the height of the civil-rights movement. Fisher repeated the standard braindeath exam and conﬁrmed the hospital’s conclusion. He also performed a radionuclide cerebral-blood-ﬂow study. “You see a complete white void, a whiteout in the part of the head where the brain is,” he told Judge Grillo the next day. “Normally it would be dark black.” Grillo ruled that the hospital could unplug Jahi’s ventilator in six days. The family set up a GoFundMe page to pay for Jahi to be airlifted to another hospital (“We acknowledge that the odds are stacked against us,” Nailah wrote), and strangers who learned about the case in the media contributed more than ﬁfty thousand dollars. The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network—an organization founded by the parents and siblings of Terri Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state for ﬁfteen years and became a cause célèbre for the right-tolife movement—oﬀered to use its contacts to ﬁnd a facility. Nailah had never had an opinion on the right to life. On abortion, she was pro-choice. But, she said, “I just wanted to get her out of there.” Sandra said she sometimes wonders, “If the hospital had been more compassionate, would we have fought so much?” Nailah asked Children’s Hospital to perform a tracheotomy, a surgery that enables ventilator air to be pumped directly into the windpipe—a safer THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
way for Jahi to breathe when transported to a new hospital. The hospital’s medical-ethics committee unanimously concluded that the intervention was inappropriate. “No conceivable goal of medicine—preserving life, curing disease, restoring function, alleviating suﬀering—can be achieved by continuing to ventilate and artiﬁcially support a deceased patient,” they wrote. They said that the doctors and nurses caring for Jahi were experiencing “tremendous moral distress,” and that accommodating the family’s requests would raise “signiﬁcant concerns of justice and fairness.” Just before the court’s protective order was set to expire, Judge Grillo extended it by eight days. Not long afterward, Dolan and the lawyers for the hospital reached an agreement: the hospital would release Jahi to the Alameda County coroner, who would declare her dead. Then the family would become “wholly and exclusively responsible” for her. On January 3, 2014, the coroner issued Jahi’s death certiﬁcate. For cause of death, he wrote, “Pending investigation.” wo days later, two nurses from an T air-evacuation service slipped into Jahi’s hospital room. A doctor from Children’s Hospital detached her from the ventilator, and the two nurses connected her to a portable one and put her on a gurney. They took her to an unmarked ambulance at the hospital’s back entrance. The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Green Bay Packers that day, and Dolan hoped the game would distract a crowd of journalists who had gathered in front. Dolan didn’t tell anyone where Jahi was going—not even her family—because he was afraid that the hospital would ﬁnd out and somehow thwart the plan. Nailah was the only family member permitted on the plane, which was paid for with money received from GoFundMe. Nailah was terriﬁed of the noise her daughter’s portable respirator was making, which seemed as loud as the jet’s engine. It wasn’t until they landed that she learned they were in New Jersey, one of only two states— New York is the other—where families can reject the concept of brain 34
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Those dogs chuffing down black dirt at the end of the driveway, seeming to grin with delicious intake—I knew earth wasn’t what it seemed. Envious, I could get down on my knees and join their feast. Tails wave, one paws the ground open for the other. The display ends as suddenly as it began. They’re oﬀ, lifted legs marking territory. Some dogs are only human. Yet what they did there with their teeth and mouths stays with me through the day. I see them as I can’t see myself, finding what they need just under the surface— digging for it, eagerly, letting me wonder at sufficiency, at certain insatiable hungers. Needing a few bites of earth to settle us out. —Tess Gallagher death if it violates their religious beliefs. The laws in both states were written to accommodate Orthodox Jews, some of whom believe, citing the Talmud, that the presence of breath signiﬁes life. Jahi was admitted to St. Peter’s University Hospital, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen. Nailah said, “I had no plan, no place to live, no nothing.” She had packed one suitcase. “When it comes to my kid, I’m an animal,” she told me. “It wasn’t until later on that I was, like, What did I do?” hildren’s Hospital hired Sam C Singer, an expert in crisis communications and reputation management, to deal with the media that were covering the case. “The general perception inside the hospital was that they were under siege,” Singer told me. “They were not used to engaging in a gutter ﬁght.” Two days after Jahi’s departure, Singer (whom the San Francisco Chronicle calls the city’s “top gun for hire”) told a local paper, “I’ve never
seen such reckless disregard for the truth.” At a press conference in front of the hospital, he said that Dolan had “created a hoax. A very sad hoax. That Jahi McMath is in some way alive. She’s not. She’s deceased by every law in the state of California. And by every spiritual belief system imaginable.” Bioethicists also disparaged the family’s decision. In an op-ed in Newsday, Arthur Caplan, the founding director of N.Y.U.’s Division of Medical Ethics and perhaps the best-known bioethicist in the country, wrote, “Keeping her on a ventilator amounts to desecration of a body.” He told CNN, “There isn’t any likelihood that she’s gonna survive very long.” In an interview with USA Today, he said, “You can’t really feed a corpse” and “She is going to start to decompose.” Laurence McCullough, a professor of medical ethics at Cornell, criticized any hospital that would admit Jahi. “What could they be thinking?” he said to USA Today. “There is a word for this: crazy.” Robert Truog, the director of the
Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, said that he was troubled by the tone of the media coverage. “I think that the bioethics community felt this need to support the traditional understanding of brain death, to the point that they were really treating the family with disdain, and I felt terrible about that,” he told me. Truog thought that the social context of the family’s decision had been ignored. African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to ask that their lives be prolonged as much as possible, even in cases of irreversible coma—a preference that likely stems from fears of neglect. A large body of research has shown that black patients are less likely to get appropriate medications and surgeries than white ones are, regardless of their insurance or education level, and more likely to receive undesirable medical interventions, like amputations. Truog said, “When a doctor is saying your loved one is dead, and your loved one doesn’t look dead, I understand that it might feel that, once again, you are not getting the right care because of the color of your skin.” ntil the nineteen-sixties, cardioU respiratory failure was the only way to die. The notion that death could be diagnosed in the brain didn’t emerge until after the advent of the modern ventilator, allowing what was known at the time as “oxygen treatment”: as long as blood carrying oxygen reached the heart, it could continue to beat. In 1967, Henry Beecher, a renowned bioethicist at Harvard Medical School, wrote to a colleague, “It would be most desirable for a group at Harvard University to come to some subtle conclusion as to a new deﬁnition of death.” Permanently comatose patients, maintained by mechanical ventilators, were “increasing in numbers over the land and there are a number of problems which should be faced up to.” Beecher created a committee comprising men who already knew one another: ten doctors, one lawyer, one historian, and one theologian. In less than six months, they completed a report, which they published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The only citation in the article was
from a speech by the Pope. They proposed that the irreversible destruction of the brain should be deﬁned as death, giving two reasons: to relieve the burden on families and hospitals, which were providing futile care to patients who would never recover, and to address the fact that “obsolete criteria for the deﬁnition of death can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation,” a ﬁeld that had developed rapidly; in the previous ﬁve years, doctors had performed the world’s ﬁrst transplant of a pancreas, a liver, a lung, and a heart. In an earlier draft, the second reason was stated more directly: “There is great need for the tissues and organs of the hopelessly comatose in order to restore to health those who are still salvageable.” (The sentence was revised after Harvard’s medical dean wrote that “the connotation of this statement is unfortunate.”) In the next twelve years, twentyseven states rewrote their deﬁnitions of death to conform to the Harvard committee’s conclusions. Thousands of lives were prolonged or saved every year because patients declared braindead—a form of death eventually adopted by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and most of Europe— were now eligible to donate their organs. The philosopher Peter Singer described it as “a concept so desirable in its consequences that it is unthinkable to give up, and so shaky on its foundations that it can scarcely be supported.” The new death was “an ethical choice masquerading as a medical fact,” he wrote. Legal ambiguities remained—people considered alive in one region of the country could be declared dead in another—and, in 1981, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems proposed a uniform deﬁnition and theory of death. Its report, which was endorsed by the American Medical Association, stated that death is the moment when the body stops operating as an “integrated whole.” Even if life continues in individual organs and cells, the person is no longer alive, because the functioning organs are merely a collection of artiﬁcially maintained subsystems that will inevitably disintegrate. “The heart usually stops beating within two to ten days,” the report said.
The commission’s staﬀ philosopher, Daniel Wikler, a professor at Harvard and the ﬁrst staﬀ ethicist for the World Health Organization, told me that he didn’t think the commission’s theory of death was supported by the scientiﬁc facts it cited. “I thought it was demonstrably untrue, but so what?” he said. “I didn’t see a downside at the time.” Wikler told the commission that it would be more logical to say that death occurred when the cerebrum—the center for consciousness, thoughts, and feelings, the properties essential to having a personal identity—was destroyed. His formulation would have rendered a much broader population of patients, including those who could breathe on their own, dead. Despite Wikler’s reservations, he drafted the third chapter of the report, “Understanding the ‘Meaning’ of Death.” “I was put in a tight spot, and I fudged,” he told me. “I knew that there was an air of bad faith about it. I made it seem like there are a lot of profound unknowns and went in the direction of fuzziness, so that no one could say, ‘Hey, your philosopher says this is nonsense.’ That’s what I thought, but you’d never know from what I wrote.” hen Jahi arrived in New Jersey, W she hadn’t been fed for more than three weeks, and her organs were failing. The chief of pediatric critical care at St. Peter’s wrote in her records that there was “no hope of brain recovery.” Nailah said, “I didn’t have a clue. I had really thought that I would get her a feeding tube and a tracheotomy, and she would just get up, and we would be good.” In the hospital cafeteria, she saw other families whispering about her. A surgeon at St. Peter’s gave Jahi a tracheal tube and a feeding tube, which provided nutrition and vitamins. Nailah, who spent all her waking hours in the hospital, became friendly with some of the nurses, who told her that the surgeon who performed the tracheotomy had been ostracized by his colleagues. “They were, like, ‘You operated on that dead girl?’ ” she said. (The hospital did not return calls to speak about the case; in Jahi’s records, a physician wrote that the THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
St. Peter’s administration had agreed value their cognitive abilities—people dren a year before. She’d been teasing to treat her “without medical person- who believe that the ability to think, them, saying, “I’m going to run your nel’s acceptance.”) to plan, and to act in the world are business for the rest of your lives.” Nailah and Marvin slept at a house what make for meaningful lives. But When her son bragged that he’d outthat the hospital owned, until, after there is a diﬀerent tradition that looks live her, she joked, “Well, I’m going to three months, they were told they much more to the body.” The notion get put on a ventilator.” Jahi had never needed to move on, to make room for of brain death has been rejected by heard the word and asked what it other families. They took a cab to a some Native Americans, Muslims, and meant. “It’s a machine that keeps you Motel 6. For the next three months, evangelical Protestants, in addition to alive,” Nailah explained. She told me, they stayed at whatever motel had the Orthodox Jews. The concept is also “I’ll never forget: the rest of the kids best weekly rate. Nailah’s youngest treated with skepticism in Japan, owing laughed, and Jahi said, ‘Well, if somechild, Jordyn, moved in with her aunt, in part to distrust of medical author- thing ever happens to me, make sure and her son, Jose, moved in with ity. Japan’s ﬁrst heart transplant, in 1968, you keep me on one of those.’ ” his father, in Oakland. (Nailah’s old- became a national scandal—it was unt St. Peter’s Hospital, a est child was an adult, living music therapist visited on her own.) The humanthe intensive-care unit every resources department at Home few days. She stood next to Depot kept calling Nailah to Jahi’s bed and played lullabies ask when she’d return. “I don’t and soothing melodies on a know,” she told them. They harp. Nailah observed that Jaﬁnally stopped calling. Nailah, hi’s heart rate, which tended who owned her house in Oakto be high, would lower when land, told me, “I felt like I was the harpist played. She wonexiled out of my state.” dered if her daughter found By March, Jahi’s condition the songs calming. had begun to stabilize. Her Nailah said, “I knew that skin became more elastic, her Jahi was in there.” She began limbs and face became less requesting that she move swollen, and her blood presdiﬀerent parts of her body. In sure steadied. In their progone test, which Nailah reress notes, her doctors simply corded on her cell phone, she wrote, “Status quo.” No rehastands at the side of Jahi’s hosbilitation facilities would acpital bed without touching it. cept her as a patient, so she Jahi’s eyes are closed, and the remained in the hospital’s upper half of her bed is raised intensive-care unit, her treatat a forty-ﬁve-degree angle. ment covered by Medicaid. Her hands are placed on rolled Nailah said that the cost of cloths, to keep them from care was roughly a hundred contracting into ﬁsts. “Move and ﬁfty thousand dollars a your hand,” Nailah says. Two week. According to New Jerseconds later, Jahi cocks her sey’s 1991 statute on death, inright wrist. “Very good!” Nailah surance providers can’t deny says. “Can you move your coverage because of “personal Nailah and Marvin’s wedding, with Jordyn and Jahi. hand again? Move your hand religious beliefs regarding the application of neurological criteria for clear that the donor was beyond re- so we can see it. Move it hard.” Nine declaring death.” Alan Weisbard, the covery, or that the recipient (who died seconds later, Jahi ﬂexes her forearm, executive director of the bioethics com- shortly after the transplant) needed a turns her wrist, drops the cloth, and mission that drafted the law, told me, new heart—and, afterward, the coun- lifts her ﬁngers. Her face is expres“I thought our position should be one try never adopted a comprehensive law sionless and still. In another video, Nailah says, “Kick of humility, rather than certainty.” equating brain death with the death Weisbard had previously served as of a human being. Weisbard, a reli- your foot.” Jahi’s purple blanket has the assistant legal director for the Pres- gious Jew, said that he didn’t think “mi- been folded back, revealing her bare ident’s Commission on death and, like nority communities should be forced feet and ankles. After ﬁfteen seconds, Wikler, he felt uneasy about the result. into a deﬁnition of death that violates she wiggles her toes. “Try your hardHe said, “I think that the people who their belief structures and practices and est,” Nailah says. “I see you moved your toes, but you have to kick your foot.” have done the deep and conceptual their primary senses.” thinking about brain death are people Nailah kept thinking about a con- Twenty-two seconds later, Jahi ﬂicks with high I.Q.s, who tremendously versation that she’d had with her chil- her right foot upward. “Oh, I’m so 36
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proud of you,” Nailah says, leaning over the bed and kissing her cheek. Seven months after moving to New Jersey, Jahi began menstruating. Sandra was visiting, and she asked the doctor on call to give Jahi a heating pad and Motrin—all the women in her family had severe cramps—and to note in Jahi’s medical records that she had got her period for the ﬁrst time. The doctor told Sandra and Nailah that he couldn’t say for sure what was causing the blood ﬂow. Nailah told him, “Blood is coming out of a teenage girl’s vagina, and nowhere else, for ﬁve days—what do you think it is? Is there another diagnosis?” Sandra said that they both became so agitated that the doctor ﬁnally told them, “Why don’t you two girls go for a walk in the park outside.” n late August, 2014, Jahi was released Iagnosis from St. Peter’s. Her discharge diwas brain death. She moved into a two-bedroom apartment that Nailah and Marvin had rented in a colorless condominium complex near New Brunswick. They slept on an air mattress on the ﬂoor, and Jordyn, who had just moved to New Jersey, to begin ﬁrst grade, slept on the couch. Jahi had the brightest room, with a large window overlooking the parking lot. Nurses, paid for by Medicaid, provided twenty-four-hour care, in eight-hour shifts. Every four hours, Nailah helped them turn her daughter’s body. One of Jahi’s most loyal nurses taped a note to the wall of her bedroom: “During your shift, interact with her,” she had written. “She does hear you! Speak clearly, softly, slowly.” She added, “No one knows if she understands, but just your comforting voice or touch should help.” Not long after the family moved in, two detectives and a patrol oﬃcer showed up at the apartment. The Franklin Township Police Detective Bureau had received an anonymous tip that there was a dead body in the house. Nailah led the detectives into Jahi’s room and showed them her ventilator. The cops concluded that there was no criminal activity and left, but the nurse on duty was rattled, and she quit. Nailah had for months been ﬂooded by e-mails and
Facebook messages accusing her of child abuse or of exploiting her daughter for money. Strangers started a petition on Change.org to “stop NJ from paying for corpse care out of taxpayers money”; the petition said that Nailah had bought a Michael Kors purse and expensive wine, an accusation based on pictures on Instagram. Nailah’s lawyer, Dolan, told me, “They think she’s just some black lady sucking down social resources.” Nailah read the Bible more than she ever had, and she tried to entertain the idea that God had chosen her to suﬀer this way because she was resilient enough to endure it. On her Facebook page, she described herself as “just a strong black woman who is not in the mood for anyone’s bullshit!” But she couldn’t accept the idea that divine logic was at work. “I really don’t feel like this was God’s plan for my kid’s life,” she said. A month after Jahi’s discharge, the International Brain Research Foundation, a neuroscience think tank that supports novel research, helped pay for Jahi to have MRI scans at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Calixto Machado, the president of the Cuban Society of Clinical Neurophysiology, ﬂew to New Jersey to analyze the scans. Machado has published more than two hundred papers on disorders of consciousness and runs a symposium every four years that attracts the world’s leading scholars of brain death. He said, “Everybody was talking about Jahi—Jahi this, Jahi that—but nobody knew the neurological picture.” The fact that Jahi had begun menstruating—a process mediated by the hypothalamus, near the front of the brain— suggested to him that not all neurological functions had ceased. Dolan sat beside Machado in the hospital as he looked at two computer screens showing images of Jahi’s head and the top of her spine. In the rare cases in which brain-dead patients are sustained by a ventilator, neurologists have reported a phenomenon called “respirator brain”: the brain liqueﬁes. Machado said that if Jahi’s original diagnosis was correct, and she’d had no cerebral blood ﬂow for nine months, he expected that she’d have little tissue structure in her cranial cavity, just
ﬂuid and disorganized membranes. On the scans, Machado observed that Jahi’s brain stem was nearly destroyed. The nerve ﬁbres that connect the brain’s right and left hemispheres were barely recognizable. But large areas of her cerebrum, which mediates consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, were structurally intact. Dolan shouted, “She’s got a brain!” Machado also performed a test that measures the interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, a relationship that regulates states of arousal and rest. He used three experimental conditions, one of which he called “Mother talks to the patient.” Nailah stood next to her daughter without touching her. “Hey, Jahi, I’m here,” she told her. “I love you. Everyone is so proud of you.” Machado noted that Jahi’s heart rate changed in response to her mother’s voice. “This CANNOT be found in a brain-dead patient,” he wrote. Three days after the scans, Dolan submitted a report by Machado to the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau and asked it to rescind Jahi’s death certiﬁcate, so that Nailah could return to California and have Jahi treated there. The coroner and the county’s public-health department rejected the request. “Any opportunity to overturn the Court’s holding that Jahi McMath is brain dead has long expired,” their lawyers wrote. Alan Shewmon, who had just D . retired as the chief of the neurology department at Olive ViewU.C.L.A. Medical Center, read Machado’s report and wondered if Jahi had a condition, ﬁrst proposed by the Brazilian neurologist C. G. Coimbra, called ischemic penumbra. Coimbra hypothesized that this brain state could lead to a misdiagnosis of brain death in patients whose cerebral blood ﬂow was diminished enough that it couldn’t be detected by the standard tests. If blood was still ﬂowing to parts of the brain, however slowly, then, in theory, some degree of recovery could be possible. Shewmon has given a diagnosis of brain death to roughly two hundred people. He is measured, formal, and precise. When I asked him what he thought of the media coverage stating THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
that Jahi would die imminently, he paused and said, “I sit back and let it play out.” He laughed, harder than I would have expected, and said nothing more. Two months after Machado’s tests, Shewmon ﬂew to New Jersey and visited Jahi at her apartment. He pulled a desk chair next to her bed and, with a notepad in his hand, watched her for six hours. Jahi did not respond to his instructions to move her limbs, a fact that Shewmon did not ﬁnd particularly revealing. He had analyzed the videos that Nailah had recorded, and they suggested to him that Jahi was in a minimally conscious state, a condition in which patients are partly or intermittently aware of themselves and their environment. He wrote that her condition “creates a particular challenge to either disprove or verify, because the likelihood of Jahi being in a ‘responsive’ state during a random examination is small.” After Shewmon left, Nailah took more videos. She followed Shewmon’s instructions not to touch her daughter during the ﬁlming and to begin the video outside Jahi’s room. Shewmon eventually analyzed forty-nine videos containing a hundred and ninetythree commands and six hundred and sixty-eight movements. He wrote that
the movements occur “sooner after command than would be expected on the basis of random occurrence,” and that “there is a very strong correspondence between the body part requested and the next body part that moves. This cannot be reasonably explained by chance.” He noted that the movements “bear no resemblance to any kind of reﬂex,” and that, in one video, Jahi seemed to display a complex level of linguistic comprehension. “Which ﬁnger is the eﬀ-you ﬁnger?” Nailah asked her. “When you get mad at somebody, which ﬁnger you supposed to move?” Two seconds later, Jahi ﬂexed her left middle ﬁnger. Then she bent her pinkie. “Not that one,” Nailah said. Four seconds later, Jahi moved her middle ﬁnger again. James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth who helped develop the theory of brain death that formed the basis of the 1981 President’s Commission report, told me that Shewmon showed him some of the videos. “My thoughts about this are not fully formed,” he said, adding, “I’m always skeptical of videotapes, because of the videos of Terri Schiavo.” Her family had released video clips that they presented as proof of consciousness, but the videos had been edited, giving the illusion that she
was tracking people with her eyes, even though she was blind. Bernat said, “I have a huge amount of respect for Alan, and if he says something, I am going to pay attention to it.” He called Shewmon “the most intellectually honest person I have ever met.”
hen Shewmon was a college W sophomore, at Harvard, he listened to Chopin’s Trois Nouvelles Études No. 2, in his dorm room, and the music lifted him into such a state of ecstasy that he had an epiphany: he no longer thought it possible that all conscious experience, particularly one’s perception of beauty, could be a “mere electrophysiological epiphenomenon,” he said. The music seemed to transcend “the spatial limitations of matter.” An atheist, he converted to Catholicism and studied Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. He went to medical school, in 1971, and then specialized in neurology, because he wanted to understand the relationship between the mind and the brain. For the next ﬁfteen years, he believed in and defended the notion of brain death, but in the early nineties he began to feel increasingly troubled by the concept. When he engaged in what he called “Socratic conversations” with colleagues, he saw that few doctors could conﬁdently articulate why the destruction of one organ was synonymous with death. Usually, they’d end up saying that these patients were still living biological organisms but had lost the capacities that made them human. He thought the formulation seemed too similar to the idea of “mental death,” which the Nazis embraced after the publication, in 1920, of a widely read medical and legal text called “Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Living.” In 1992, Shewmon was asked to consult on the case of a fourteen-yearold boy who, after falling oﬀ the hood of a moving car, had been declared brain-dead. The boy’s family was religious and insisted that he remain on a ventilator. His physicians, certain that his heart would soon fail, acceded to his parents’ request. He survived for sixty-three days and began puberty. “This case ﬂew in the face of every-
thing I had been taught regarding the universality and imminence of somatic demise in brain death,” Shewmon later wrote. “It forced me to rethink the whole thing.” Shewmon began researching similar cases, and found a hundred and seventy-ﬁve people, many of whom were children or teen-agers, who lived for months or years after they were legally dead. The longest survivor was a boy who had been declared dead after contracting meningitis, when he was four. His heart beat for twenty more years, during which time he grew proportionally and recovered from minor wounds and infections, even though he had no identiﬁable brain structure and the outside of his brain had calciﬁed. In 1997, in a paper called “Recovery from ‘Brain Death’: A Neurologist’s Apologia,” Shewmon disavowed his earlier views. He acknowledged that “dissenters from the ‘brain death’ concept are typically dismissed condescendingly as simpletons, religious zealots or pro-life fanatics,” and announced that he was joining their ranks. Shewmon’s research on what he calls “chronic survival” after brain death helped prompt a new President’s council on bioethics, in 2008, to revisit the deﬁnition of death. The council’s report referred to Shewmon’s research thirty-eight times. Although it ultimately reaﬃrmed the validity of brain death, it abandoned the biological and philosophical justiﬁcation presented by the 1981 President’s Commission— that a functioning brain was necessary for the body to operate as an “integrated whole.” Instead, the report said that the destruction of the brain was equivalent to death because it meant that a human being was no longer able to “engage in commerce with the surrounding world,” which is “what an organism ‘does’ and what distinguishes every organism from nonliving things.” In a personal note appended to the end of the report, the chairman of the council, Edmund Pellegrino, expressed regret regarding the lack of empirical precision. He wrote that attempts to articulate the boundaries of death “end in some form of circular reasoning—deﬁning death in
“I think that from time to time he likes to remind us how talented he can be by writing something terrible.”
• terms of life and life in terms of death without a true ‘deﬁnition’ of one or the other.”
after Nailah ﬁled her taxes, Ithatnher2015, accountant called to tell her her submission had been rejected by the I.R.S. One of the “dependents” she’d listed was deceased. “I was, like, Oh, God, now I have to tell this guy what is going on—that she’s alive on a state level and dead on the federal level,” she said. She decided not to ﬁght the I.R.S.; she was sure that she’d lose. “It’s not even about money,” she told me. “It’s the principle: I really have a human being that I get up and see about every day.” Nailah sold her house in Oakland to pay her rent in New Jersey. She almost never left the apartment. Consumed by guilt for having urged Jahi to have her tonsils removed, she was given a diagnosis of depression. “I used to watch the antidepressant commercials, where people would stare out the window and say they couldn’t go outside, and I’d think, That is ridiculous,” she told me. “Who can’t go
• outside? Who can’t get oﬀ the bed? Where I’m from, you have survival skills—you learn to adapt. If you’re poor, if anything goes wrong, you can still make it. But this is one situation that I cannot adapt to.” In the spring of 2015, Nailah ﬁled a malpractice lawsuit against Oakland Children’s Hospital, seeking damages for Jahi’s pain, suﬀering, and medical expenses. The hospital argued that deceased bodies do not have legal standing to sue. “Plaintiﬀs are preserving Jahi’s body from its natural post-mortem course,” the hospital’s lawyers wrote. “It would be against public policy to hold health professionals liable for the costs of the futile medical interventions performed on a dead person.” Dolan submitted video recordings of Jahi and declarations from Machado, three New Jersey doctors who had examined her, and Shewmon, who concluded that Jahi had fulﬁlled the requirements of brain death at the time of her diagnosis but no longer did. He wrote, “With the passage of time, her brain has recovered the THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
“Remember—we’re not Eagles fans or Patriots fans. We’re Tom Brady Somehow Gets Humiliated fans.”
• ability to generate electrical activity, in parallel with its recovery of ability to respond to commands.” He described her as “an extremely disabled but very much alive teenage girl.” The hospital hired its own medical experts. Thomas Nakagawa, who wrote the 2011 guidelines for pediatric brain death, said that the only accepted criteria for brain death were those stipulated by the guidelines. MRI scans, the heart-rate analysis, the videos of movement, and the evidence of menstruation were not relevant to the criteria. Sanford Schneider, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, referred to Jahi as a “corpse,” and told the court that she “cannot respond to verbal commands, because she has no cerebral mechanism to hear sound,” a conclusion based on a test that measured Jahi’s brainwave activity in response to diﬀerent noises. Schneider wrote, “There is absolutely no medical possibility that J McMath has recovered, or will someday recover, from death.” Last summer, a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court rejected the hospital’s argument that the braindeath exam from 2013 “must be accorded ﬁnality for any and all other 40
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
• purposes.” He ruled that “a triable issue of fact exists as to whether Jahi currently satisﬁes the statutory deﬁnition of ‘dead.’ ” In a trial expected to last a month, a jury will decide if Jahi is alive. case has sparked what ThadJahi’s deus Pope, a bioethicist at Mitchell Hamline University School of Law, calls the “Jahi McMath shadow eﬀect”: a rise in the number of families, many of them ethnic or racial minorities, going to court to prevent hospitals from unplugging their loved ones from ventilators. In Toronto, the family of Taquisha McKitty, a young black mother declared dead after a drug overdose, argued that she couldn’t have died, because she still had a menstrual cycle. At a court hearing this fall, her doctor said that he was aware of vaginal bleeding but “nobody knows if that was menstrual.” A similar debate unfolded in 2015, when an Ethiopian college student, Aden Hailu, was declared brain-dead at a hospital in Nevada after exploratory surgery for stomach pain. A district court rejected her father’s request to keep her on a ventilator, but the Nevada Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling that expert testimony was needed to determine whether the stan-
dard brain-death tests “adequately measure all functions of the entire brain.” (The hearing never happened, because Hailu’s heart stopped beating.) Pope told me that “every extra hour of nursing time that goes into one of these dead patients is an hour of nursing time that didn’t go to somebody else.” He also worries that these disputes, which often get media attention, will cause fewer people to register as organ donors, a practice whose social acceptability depends on the idea that patients are dead before their vital organs are removed. When I expressed anxiety that my article could perpetuate the problem, he remarked that it could “do a small amount of harm.”Then he reconsidered and said, “The cat’s already out of the bag.” Nailah’s lawyer, Dolan, a registered organ donor, told me that he struggles with the practical consequences of advocating for Jahi. “There’s a part of me that’s, like, Shit, we may screw up organ donation,” he said. When families in similar situations call him, he tells Nailah’s story to warn against following her path. “This is like Job,” he said. Truog, the director of the Center of Bioethics at Harvard, said that once, when he gave an academic talk on brain death, he described it as a catastrophic brain injury, rather than death. A transplant physician stood up and told him, “You should be ashamed of yourself. What you are doing is immoral: to put doubts in the minds of people about a practice that is saving countless lives.” Truog told me, “I’ve thought long and hard about that. In order to support public trust in the scientiﬁc enterprise, I guess I feel that the medical profession is always going to be better oﬀ, in the long run, if we speak honestly and truthfully about what we know.” He continued, “I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with the fact that we take organs from these people, even though there is no scientiﬁc reason for believing them to be dead. I believe it is a morally virtuous thing to do and we ought to facilitate it. We are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.” lthough Jahi has come to repreA sent a diﬀerent way of deﬁning life, her family is not sure that they would keep her on a ventilator if she still fulﬁlled the expectations for brain
death. Sandra said that, before Jahi was given the MRI scans at Rutgers, she told herself, “If her brain is jelly, we are going to have to accept that. I don’t think people should live on that way. If they’re gone, they’re gone.” Jahi’s family believes that she is capable of a fuller range of thought than she is able to express, an idea that Shewmon has also considered. “Given the evidence of intermittent responsiveness,” he wrote in a declaration to the court, “we should be all the more willing to remain agnostic regarding her inner state of mind during periods of unresponsivity, rather than automatically equate it with unconsciousness.” Recent advances in neuroimaging have led some clinicians to consider the possibility that a signiﬁcant portion of patients thought to be in a vegetative state—those who demonstrate no overt awareness of their environment and do not make purposeful movements—have been misdiagnosed; they may be periodically conscious and capable of some degree of communication. Nailah said that nearly every day she asks Jahi, “Are you O.K. with what I’m doing? Do you want to live? Are you suﬀering?” She said, “I know that things change—people change. If Jahi has given up and doesn’t want to be here anymore, I’m just going to go with what she wants.” (She now has a do-not-resuscitate order for Jahi.) She said that Jahi answers her questions by either squeezing her hand or pressing her own index ﬁnger toward her thumb, a signal for “yes” that Nailah taught her. “When I see that,” she said, “I think, Who am I to not want to live? Because many days I do want to die. But then I see her every day, trying her best.” Last December, I visited Nailah at her apartment, and she said that she had begun to feel more hopeful. She felt more conﬁdent that the courts would allow her to bring Jahi home to Oakland, although the trial has not yet been scheduled. Recently, she had asked Jahi how long she thought it would take. Six months? she asked. A year? A year and a half ? Jahi squeezed her hand after the third question. Nailah took it as her answer. “I am planning this big-ass
welcome-home party in my head,” Nailah told me. “I know my city really, really loves us.” “Hi, girl, are you sleeping or awake?” Nailah said to Jahi as we walked into her room. Jahi wore pink pajamas, and her face was clear and smooth but bloated, a side eﬀect of a steroid she takes to raise her blood pressure. Her eyes were closed. “Are you sleeping? I want to know,” Nailah said. She picked up Jahi’s hand and held it with both of her palms. Jahi’s other hand was draped over the belly of a baby doll. Her hair was in thin braids that Nailah worried were getting thinner. Stacey, a nurse who had been caring for Jahi for the past year, stood by her feet. Stacey had spent the morning reading her a Sherlock Holmes story. Nailah spoke about how much she had come to appreciate her own mother, who called Jahi three times a day, singing to her, reading prayers, relaying family gossip, and updating her on the Golden State Warriors. Stacey interrupted: “She’s moving her hand on the baby.” Jahi’s index and middle ﬁnger had shifted about half an inch, moving from the doll’s belly to its chest. “Good job,” Stacey said. “Good job, Jahi!” “Can you move your pointer ﬁnger on the baby?” Nailah asked. Jahi’s ﬁngernails, which Nailah had painted pink, remained still. “That’s your baby,” Nailah said,
referring to the doll. “That’s my grandbaby,” she said, laughing. Jahi’s thumb trembled. “Not your thumb, but your pointer ﬁnger,” Nailah said. “I know you can do it.” After a few seconds, Nailah’s middle ﬁnger ﬂickered. She raised it slightly and then dropped it. “There you go,” Nailah said. “Thank you.”
Daniel Wikler, the Harvard philosopher, told me that he guessed Jahi’s family might be suﬀering from “folie à famille,” a rare condition in which a delusion is shared by all members of a family. It struck me as a coherent response to the death of a child: who wouldn’t ﬁnd comfort in the fantasy that the child’s will had been preserved? It seemed so intuitive that I worried I could also be investing undue meaning in gestures nearly too subtle to discern. Given the weight of the evidence, though, it seemed unlikely. Jahi’s doctors and nurses were all converts, too. On Nailah’s cellphone recordings, which document the past four years of her daughter’s life, several diﬀerent nurses can be heard congratulating Jahi for gathering the strength and commitment to move a foot or a ﬁnger. Jahi’s little sister, Jordyn, was similarly devoted. A wiry girl wearing faded skinny jeans and Day-Glo hightop sneakers, she walked into her sister’s room as soon as the school bus dropped her oﬀ. In Oakland, she and Jahi had shared a bedroom, and now she liked to lie in bed with her sister; sometimes she’d put lip gloss on her or rub lotion on her legs. Jordyn was unruly in school, and Sandra worried that her misbehavior was an expression of alienation at home. Once, when Jordyn seemed jealous of all the love directed toward her sister, Nailah said, “Do you think your sister would do this for you?” Jordyn said yes. “Well, that’s why we’re doing everything for her,” Nailah told her. Jordyn has learned that if she wants to have a conversation in her sister’s room she needs to stand on the same side of the bed as her mother. “Jahi doesn’t like when two people talk over her,” Nailah said. “Her heart rate shoots up.” It makes Jahi nervous and upset, Nailah said, to be treated as if she didn’t exist. “She listens to everybody’s conversations—she has no choice,” she said. “I bet she has some secrets she can tell us.” She smoothed back Jahi’s hair. “You know how sometimes, when you’re just sitting still, thinking, you can take yourself somewhere else? I always say, ‘Jahi, one day, I want to know everything you know and everywhere that you’ve been.’ ” THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
A REPORTER AT LARGE
AIRBORNE Drone racing takes screen lovers back into the actual world. BY IAN FRAZIER
n a canyon in the Rocky Mountain Front above Fort Collins, Colorado, a young man named Jordan Temkin is ﬂying his drone. He wears goggles that show him a video feed from a camera built into the drone, and he holds a console with twin joysticks that control the direction, angle, pitch, yaw, and speed of the ﬂight. He sets the drone on the gravel at his feet. Just downhill is the Cache la Poudre River. The canyon rises to maybe three hundred feet above. He gives a command and the drone leaps to the top of the canyon in an instant. Then it is soaring over the highest places, looking down on Temkin, a small ﬁgure sitting on the tailgate of his car. At eighty miles an hour, the shadow of the drone ﬂashes
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
across the face of the rocks. Then Temkin swoops it down to the surface of the river, where it zips a few feet above the water. Because of where the sun is, the river is a blast of silver light. Temkin takes the drone upward again and veers into an intersecting canyon. The limit on the battery that powers the drone is about three minutes. Before time’s up, Temkin lands the drone near him, where its arrival on the gravel makes the kind of plastic clatter associated with dropped toys. In fact, the drone looks like a toy. Temkin calls it a quadcopter. It has four plastic propellers, one at each corner of a cruciform plastic frame. “Quad” is the commonly used name for drones like this. The entire device could ﬁt in
a single-serving pizza box. An immeasurable amount of scientiﬁc and technological progress, like a huge invisible inverted pyramid, converges on this small, toylike point. At twenty-six years old, Temkin still has the sweet, serene manner of a notspoiled kid whose parents adore him. He is six feet tall, dark-haired, part Asian; he wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a small silver logo on it that says “DRL,” a dark-blue zip-up hoodie (usually unzipped), and whiteand-yellow running shoes. When people ask him what he does for a living, he says he races toy helicopters. He has found this to be an eﬀective shorthand description for a brand-new calling. Temkin is a professional drone-racing ILLUSTRATION BY BEN KIRCHNER
pilot, one of the top earners in the sport. Flying in the mountains as much as he can is how he practices. Often Temkin ﬂies with Zachry Thayer, a Fort Collins roommate, who’s a fellow professional drone racer. Thayer is stockier than Temkin, with wizardly blue eyes and a large Hammurabi beard. Both are West Coast kids, Temkin from Seattle and Thayer from Laguna Niguel, California, in Orange County. The two met when they competed in a drone race in Sacramento in 2015. Temkin, a graduate of the University of Colorado with an art degree, was looking for a roommate, and they decided to share a house. Online, Temkin had connected with other people in the area who liked to ﬂy drones, and the collection of local drone guys who eventually got together called their group Big Whoop, because at that time, as pilots, they were the opposite of impressive. The current success of Temkin and Thayer has put a shine on that name. When Temkin races, his moniker is JET, from his initials. Thayer races as A_Nub, pronounced “a noob,” which originally meant a new-
bie, something Thayer no longer is. He kept the name because that’s how droneracing fans ﬁrst knew him. “When we started ﬂying, we could hardly do anything,” Temkin told me in Fort Collins last fall. “I built my ﬁrst drone from a frame pattern I found online and printed out on my 3-D printer. I ordered parts for it and put it together and just started ﬂying. I loved it, but I crashed all the time. Today, we can do moves we couldn’t have even thought of two years ago. That’s partly because the technology kept getting better and partly because our skills improved.” Jordan and Zach (to switch to ﬁrst names, which seems somehow more ﬁtting for them) often ﬂy with their friend and third roommate, Travis McIntyre, a skinny, widely smiling fellow with a degree in philosophy. Both Zach and Jordan describe themselves as super-competitive, but Travis ﬂies mostly for enjoyment, and is more interested in the R. & D. side. He seldom races professionally. His contribution seems to be having the kind of
lighthearted fun that can mingle with dead-serious intensity. Big Whoop’s fooling around with drones has no slacker component. If a drone crashes in the mountains, they go and get it. Once that involved them and a few experienced rock-climber friends in an ascent with ropes. When they crashed a drone in the Cache la Poudre River, they rented wetsuits and dived for it. They say they have lost only one drone. he world of airborne drones diT vides into two categories. Most people think ﬁrst of military drones. The Predator and Reaper drones that ﬁre missiles and perform surveillance are unmanned prop airplanes powered by combustion engines. Their deadliness adds the sinister sound to the word “drone.” Quadcopters, the most common kind of civilian drone, use electric motors powered by batteries. They usually have four propellers, but variations can have six or eight or more; people even build ﬁfty-propeller drones. All drones are guided by radio signals. Many military drones receive ground-based THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
signals by way of satellite. Other drones operate from signals that originate at a control console within the line of sight of the drone. People who ﬂy drones for recreation or other peaceful purposes generally buy them ready-made, oﬀ the shelf or online. Some of these drones can be as big as end tables. With most commercially available drones, pilot vision is by direct observation, in the same way that you guide remote-control toy cars or model airplanes. Drones that are guided by a pilot looking through the view of an onboard camera, using goggles—a system that allows for much greater accuracy of maneuvering—belong to a subcategory called F.P.V., which stands for “ﬁrst-person view.” Drone racing as it has evolved would not be possible without F.P.V. Quadcopters exist in their current, ever-increasing numbers because of smartphones. For the display image on a smartphone to remain upright, the phone has to know which direction is up, and its orientation in terms of vertical and horizontal. An instrument called an accelerometer, which measures change in speed in relation to Earth’s gravity, performs the ﬁrst function, a gyroscope the second. Both of these have been reﬁned and miniaturized into a single tiny component that ﬁgured prominently in the development of motion-sensing video-game controllers. Smartphones popularized the technology, and their ubiquity has made it possible for the accelerometergyroscope components to be produced in numbers that make them cheap enough to be used in quadcopters. The accelerometer-gyroscope keeps the quadcopter balanced. Now imagine it hovering, propellers rotating parallel to the ground. A quad lacks rudders and ﬂaps to control its ﬂight; instead, it maneuvers by adjusting the speed and sometimes the angle of its propellers. The information that tells the propellers’ motors how and when to change their spin arrives through radio signals, which onboard hardware translates into computer code. Jordan, Zach, Travis, and the other Big Whoop pilots build most of the drones they ﬂy. Drone-stabilization 44
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
code can be downloaded from opensource software available online, but Zach has also experimented with writing his own code. Jordan, working from his arts background, has become proﬁcient at soldering the tiny circuits in the ﬂight controller. The F.P.V. camera feed to the pilot’s goggles is an analog system. Its picture lacks the sharpness of digital. The analog feed arrives in real time, however, while a digital camera’s feed lags as much as a hundred milliseconds behind it—a minuscule diﬀerence, but enough to mess up high-speed piloting. Onboard digital cameras serve mainly for making videos. These cameras are called GoPros, after the most common brand, and the videos they record peel back your eyeballs. If you want to know what it’s like to ﬂy at eighty miles per hour through abandoned steel mills, hospitals, shopping malls, warehouses, and similar places, a wide selection of GoPro videos on YouTube awaits you. Some drone videos ﬂy you down forest trails, or take you at seagull level over ocean waves, or give an eagle’s-eye sweep of mountain canyons (Big Whoop’s specialty). Jordan says he can look at a video and tell who the pilot is, because each has a distinctive style. Thousands of fans follow Jordan’s and Zach’s ﬂight videos online. saw my ﬁrst quadcopter about four IAvenue. years ago while walking down Fifth It resembled one of those trays
which ﬁt over your lap when you have breakfast in bed, only with propellers. A young man was carrying it, and I felt a brief urge to follow him. A year or two after that, I found a small drone in a tree in a park near my house in New Jersey. It was made of white plastic, circular, about six inches across, and it had no camera—a beginner’s drone. I examined it in wonder, as if I were Stone Age Man. Its four propellers appeared undamaged. It did not seem to have crashed into the tree. Instead, someone probably placed it there at eye level so that whoever had lost it might ﬁnd it. I regarded it as a good omen and put it back. The growing upsurge in drone pop-
ularity went through an early period when everybody who tried to ﬂy F.P.V. drones kept crashing. Model-aircraft shows featured drone-demonstration areas set oﬀ by ﬂoor-to-ceiling netting, like the kind you see at some golf ranges, where pilots could fool with their quads. At an Academy of Model Aeronautics Expo in an exhibition hall at the Meadowlands, the plastic rattling sounds of drones falling to the ﬂoor indicated the drone area. Most of the demonstrations consisted of short ﬂights, sudden crashes, and guys huddling in groups to assess the damage. At Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, I attended a Day of Drones one Sunday in early March, 2016, and had to cruise the lot for a long while to ﬁnd a parking space. Kids of many ages and ethnicities packed the exhibitions of drone battles (not much contact, but plenty of crashes), drone races (more crashes, but some actual racing, on a course set up on the museum grounds), and, in the Imax theatre, the winning movies from the New York City Drone Film Festival. Kids in high excitement swarmed all over, some of them carrying their own drones. The racers, many of them guys in their twenties from a group called FPV Addiction, had clusters of younger children watching transﬁxed as parents waited patiently nearby. I ﬁrst saw Jordan and Zach race on August 7, 2016, at an event billed as the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, put on by the Drone Sports Association. At that time I knew only their racing names. The Drone Sports Association, or D.S.A., seemed to exist mainly online; its publicity said that a number of tryouts around the country had produced the group of thirty or so top pilots who would compete that day. The racecourse, marked with plastic hoops, gates, and feather ﬂags, was on a crabgrass ﬁeld on Governors Island, in New York Harbor. According to the event’s announcer, Wilbur Wright took oﬀ from this very ﬁeld in 1909 on his famous ﬂight around the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River. Today would be just as historic, the announcer said. Spectators ﬁlled the bleachers that had been set up at the ﬁnish line, sponsors’ banners decked the racecourse
and the platform where the pilots sat, drone-related commercial booths lined one side of the venue, and big splitscreen monitors showed what the drones were seeing as they raced. There was a V.I.P. tent, mostly unoccupied. At one point, Dr. Scot Refsland, the founder of the D.S.A., made a speech celebrating the day’s ﬁrst-ever broadcast of a drone race by ESPN, the sports network, and proclaimed drone racing “the new Nascar.” But the event was kind of a catastrophe; the bugs had not been worked out. Unlike the Wright brothers, who solved their tech challenges privately in an Ohio cow pasture, the D.S.A. race organizers seemed to be dealing with certain basic problems for the ﬁrst time here. Mainly, the Wi-Fi connections of the spectators’ iPhones crowded the narrow radio-frequency bandwidth needed for pilots to communicate with their drones. Establishing open channels and maintaining them proved dicey. With more interference, fewer pilots could compete in each heat, so there had to be more heats, and each took a lot of fussing around before it started. The split-screen videos kept getting snowy and blanking out. The announcer kept saying, “If you have 5.8 Wi-Fi please turn it oﬀ . . . we’re having issues with the RF channel . . . please turn oﬀ your personal Wi-Fi and hot spots . . . do the judges have video yet? . . . When we really start it will be so awesome! Please, everybody, turn oﬀ your Wi-Fi.” Drones were crashing and going astray. Jordan’s ﬂew into the superstructure above the ﬁnish line and stuck there, and he had to climb up to retrieve it. For the qualifying rounds, the day before, Zach had arrived half asleep after travelling all night from Orange County, where he had been best man in a wedding. In his sleep-deprived state he transcended the surroundings and solaced himself with ﬂying. During his heats in the ﬁnals, he sat on the pilots’ platform moving back and forth to the vision in his goggles, and he ended up winning the ten-thousand-dollar ﬁrst prize, along with the two-thousand-dollar prize in the freestyle competition. But by the end of the day many of the spectators had wandered away, not quite
sure what they had seen. The Drone Sports Association now appears to be dormant or defunct.
hen I visited Jordan, Zach, and W Travis in Fort Collins, they were living in a ranch house in a development of similar houses not far from open prairie. I arrived at about 11 A.M., so as not to ﬁnd them still asleep. Zach was supposed to be there but at the last minute had decided to attend a drone race in Seoul, where he would appear as a drone-racing celebrity but not as a competitor. Jordan asked me to remove my shoes. I was amazed to ﬁnd their domestic arrangements so orderly, and not like the chaos I inhabited when I was twenty-six. An eight-foot-long shelf of trophies dominated the living room—trophies from races in Phoenix, Detroit, Orlando, Louisville, and Dubai, among other venues. Some of the awards stood four feet high and resembled Brancusi sculptures. The real center of the house was the basement, where I was led ﬁrst. In America there are tens of millions
of basements like this, with the same short-pile wall-to-wall carpeting, cinder-block walls, high windows in window wells, exposed ducts and pipes overhead, water heater in the corner, and pervasive sense of away-from-thefamily refuge. This particular basement also rocked with a hum of invention and ambition that the Wright brothers might have recognized. On the walls, instead of the usual band posters and imitation stolen street signs, hung several of those large prop checks which are given to prize-winners in news photographs. A few bore the logos of racing events and sums in the mid four ﬁgures. Floor-to-ceiling modular shelves teetered here and there, stuﬀed with quads that had been pirated for parts. “Most of these are our red-headedstepchildren quads that somehow didn’t work the way we wanted,” Jordan said. “This quad frame here was my very ﬁrst drone, that I printed on my 3-D printer. You can see the little lines where the printer laid on each layer. All those ﬁfteen or twenty milk crates along the wall contain propellers. We go through
propellers by the thousands. That one crate is full of bags of propellers made by the propeller company that’s one of our sponsors.” He picked out a package and showed me his and Zach’s smiling head shots in red and blue balloons, like something on an old-time cereal box. Soldering equipment, extension cords, boxes upon boxes of batteries in various states of freshness, quad motors, control consoles, F.P.V. goggles with the name Fat Shark (the main goggle manufacturer) prominently displayed, quads of many sizes—down to the pocket-size minis that the pilots use to make insecteye-view videos of their living room and kitchen, ﬂying the little drones between chair legs and couch sections and around the peanut-butter jar on the counter— such a profusion of gear gave the basement a sorcerer’s-workshop richness. Oﬀ to one side stood a multitiered racing trophy that seemed out of place. “Oh, that,” Travis said, when I asked. “One night, we were sitting around and talking, and we looked at that trophy, and we wondered if we could ﬂy it. So we put motors and propellers on it, and the next day we tried it, and it ﬂew pretty well, for a fairly heavy three-foot-high racing trophy.” Flying their drones every day constitutes the core of their schedule, so, after lunch at a sandwich shop in Fort Collins (wooden tables, deluxe combos, artisanal sodas), Jordan and Travis drove us in Jordan’s new Subaru WRX hatchback into the Roosevelt National Forest and up the Cache la Poudre Canyon. The river, known as the Pooder, is one of the better trout-ﬁshing streams in the state, and it provides angling access along the road every quarter mile or so. They stopped at a narrow pullout against the canyon wall, took out their equipment, goggled up, and sent the drones skyward. The rock formations in the canyon resembled books slumped this way and that on a shelf, with an occasional pillar standing out like a book’s denuded spine. The drones glided along the vertical rocks almost caressingly and wound among the scrubby junipers growing just downslope, as the 46
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
motors made a high-pitched, sewingmachine sound. Extra goggles had been brought so that I could watch along with the pilot. I found it impossible to do that without sitting on the tailgate and holding tightly to the car. At each swoop and plunge, the F.P.V. view causes the uninitiated brain to think it’s about to die. After a few minutes, I took the goggles oﬀ, with relief. Watching the drones again without them, I noticed the canyon rocks’ black, cubistic shadow patterns for the ﬁrst time. While Jordan ﬂew, Travis told me about the passing ﬂock of geese he tried to join with his drone, and about seeing a bear suddenly pop up in his F.P.V. He brought the drone back for a second look; the bear did not seem bothered. Jordan’s drone hit a juniper branch and crashed. Putting his goggles aside, he sprang up the steep slope and retrieved drone, battery, and GoPro camera. A crash that scatters parts is called a yard sale, a term that is also used to describe a gear-strewing fall in skiing. Jordan skis and used to do ski acrobatics, but gave that up in his late teens after an accident in which he smashed his knee into his head and had to recuperate in bed for a month. Like a number of other drone racers, he has replaced a high-adrenaline physical sport with one in which you crash only vicariously. Zach turned up the next morning, having ﬂown all night from South Korea. Apparently, jet lag had never caught up with him in either direction. He sat on the couch in their living room wearing a T-shirt and a pair of baggy black trousers with white rows of starship troopers on them, and praised the South Korean government, which encourages development of drone technologies. It has built a public drone park on the outskirts of Seoul, holds regular drone races that thousands attend, and oﬀers drone instruction as part of STEM programs in the schools. “Friendly people, supergood food, fun night life in Seoul’s Times Square, lots of drone-racing fans—South Korea is one of the best countries in the world for drones,” he said. “Internationally, the South Koreans
are the best racing pilots, on average. They would be the ones I’m most afraid of,” Jordan added. I particularly wanted to ask Zach about an online video I’d seen of a race between a drone and an electric car. He had been the pilot of the drone. “Yeah, that was amazing,” he said, laughing. “It happened last summer at a two-day event of Formula E races on a track in Red Hook, Brooklyn. As a special feature on the last day, we raced against an e-car with a drone we’d built ourselves. The drone was about three feet square and weighed forty pounds, and it made a terrifying roar—you could feel it ripping the air. It went over a hundred and ten miles an hour. Drones don’t need time to accelerate because they’re at top speed almost instantly. At the start I left the e-car so far behind, it looked like it wasn’t even moving. The drone was going great, but then it started to yaw— there wasn’t enough room to bleed oﬀ speed. It overwhelmed the system, which wasn’t designed for a drone that large. I was afraid I couldn’t land it safely, so I let it climb almost straight up and then ﬂew it straight down at the track. It crashed into about a million pieces and got the biggest cheer of the weekend.” ach and Jordan have a lot of freeZ dom to travel because they are paid by a company called DRL, which stands for Drone Racing League. The annual champion receives a six-ﬁgure contract; the others receive less. More than a dozen young drone pilots are in DRL’s employ. DRL is not a league in the sense that any other organizations belong to it. It produces TV shows of its drone races, licenses the shows to ESPN and similar networks in seventy-ﬁve countries, and has attracted about ﬁfty million viewers. DRL also handles the tech side of all its races. Pilots use the company’s own drones, which are made identical to remove the possibility of advantage. DRL engineers construct all the racecourses and provide the radio-guidance technology. The company’s innovations in that area allow the drones to ﬂy out of the line of sight; usually, if an obstacle like a wall intervenes between the drone and the source of the radio signal, the
I forgave him the debt of having to explain where he came from, who his angry father and his loving mother were, or I relieved him from any excuse and sat dozens and dozens of years ago at the counter of Zak’s, Broadway and 103rd, he on the other side, his sleeves rolled up, his hands, his arms, in steaming water, washing dishes and frying pans and talking music, his dream of studying at Juilliard, the tiny practice room a rich lady from the Upper East or Upper West Side paid for, listening all afternoon to him playing the small piano, his large romantic gestures, his hair wild, his hands and fingers amazing, classic Polish, he was from Little Italy, a high-school dropout, me a graduate student at Columbia, then I left for a year in Europe and when I came back I looked him up at Zak’s, the manager told me he was dead, no one knew the facts, I thought of him for years, I remember that we took him out for dinner on Amsterdam and he unspooled his dream again and told us about the music he had written that week conducting with one hand, it was a loss I couldn’t recover from, I was awake night after night but I can’t even remember his name, I lost it years ago, dear Shelley, this was Adonis too, praise him. —Gerald Stern connection is interrupted and the drone drops from the air. On DRL racecourses, the drones are able to ﬂy into adjoining areas out of the pilot’s sight, and then return and continue in the main ring, where the spectators sit behind protective netting. DRL has also solved the problem of RF interference from the spectators’ devices, the bugbear of the races I saw on Governors Island. How DRL’s engineers accomplished these feats is proprietary. During the early part of the year, the DRL pilots compete in companysponsored events around the country and sometimes abroad. The top ﬁnishers move up to quarter-ﬁnals and semis. The ones who emerge from these contests or qualify for other reasons then appear in the championship event, a
smoothly produced TV show that’s also a real race. In the 2016 championship, held in a former metal-stamping factory in Detroit, Jordan came in ﬁrst, and in 2017 he defended his title at the Alexandra Palace, a cavernous Victorian-era exhibition hall in London. The race took place in June, and ESPN broadcast it six weeks later. Like most sports on TV, the DRL championship combined an actual sporting event with entertainment, but the level of pilot skill was stratospheric, impossible to fake. A pair of announcers in short-sleeved shirts said the usual sports-announcer things, and a young blond woman did on-ﬁeld interviews between heats. The ﬁnal six competing pilots were Jordan/JET, in the red drone; Zach/A_Nub, in the white; Gab707,
from Montreal, in the yellow; Wild Willy, from Atlanta, in the pink; Dunkan, from France, in the green; and FPVProvo, from Utah, in the blue. FPVProvo was thirty-nine, the oldest of the six pilots by some years. Each drone carried about ninety L.E.D. lights in the pilot’s color so you could easily tell whose was whose. The event consisted of seven successive heats; the ﬁrstplace ﬁnisher in each heat got ten points, and those in second through sixth got fewer. The one with the most points after heat No. 7 won. Each obstacle and gate on the racecourse shone with lights outlining it. In the dim interior of the Alexandra Palace, as spotlight beams played all around, the racecourse shimmered psychedelically. A series of three gates at diﬀerent points on a vertical loop up to the central hall’s high, vaulted ceiling required that the pilots ﬂip their drones backward through them and emerge upright at the bottom—a dauntingly complicated move—before the ﬁnal sprint to the ﬁnish line, at which they crashed into a restraining net. With the pilots’ colors ﬁxed in your mind, you could follow how each one was doing in each heat; after leaping from its own little dais at the starting line, each drone left an eighty-milean-hour trail of color. Jordan/JET won the ﬁrst heat, and Gab707 won the second. Biographical vignettes, like those in the Olympics, showed Jordan eating sushi with his beaming parents in their house in Seattle, and Gab707, a thin-faced young man with a ponytail and a Canadian accent, standing on a snowy North Woods hilltop and talking about his easy, no-sharp-turns ﬂying style. In the third heat, Gab707 hit a gate and “crashed out”; Jordan did the same in the fourth heat. He won the ﬁfth, but crashed again in the sixth, bouncing his drone oﬀ the ﬂoor after coming out of the backward loop and then hitting a gate. Meanwhile, the four other pilots fought for third place. Zach/A_Nub placed second in two heats, but got into midair collisions and crashed three times. He was looking frustrated and furious when he removed his goggles between heats. In the last, and decisive, heat, Gab707 led most of the way. Then Jordan/JET moved near him at the front of the pack THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
“He shouldn’t have thrown that snowball before ﬁring.”
• as the six approached the backward loop. Gab707 went through the loop ahead, but Jordan ﬂew a tighter turn coming out of the third gate, edged past him before the ﬁnal sprint, and crossed the ﬁnish line almost a half second in front. He pulled oﬀ his goggles in a daze, unsure whether he had won. Then he found out that he had and thrust his arms into the air. Over all, Gab707 ﬁnished second, and Wild Willy third. The entire contest—including commercials for Allianz Insurance, Swatch watches, Nikko Air (a brand of quad), and Forto Coﬀee, among others—ﬁlled an hour of TV. icholas Horbaczewski, DRL’s N thirtysomething C.E.O., resembles the star of a nineteen-ﬁfties Western, with long sideburns and swept-back chestnut hair. He founded DRL in 2015 and later established the company’s headquarters on West Twenty-seventh Street in Manhattan. Investors liked his drone-racing TV-show concept, and he eventually raised tens of millions of dollars. To handle the tech challenges, he acquired a company run by Ryan Gury, now his chief employee. Gury is a lean young designer with glasses and rolledup sleeves who also has a ﬁfties look, as if teleported from the early days of NASA. I stopped by their oﬃces after I came 48
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
• back from Colorado. When you get oﬀ the elevator at DRL’s ﬂoor, the large and hard-to-identify object on your right is part of a crashed alien spacecraft that ﬁgured in the set of a previous race. The work area occupies a spacious, high-ceilinged studio with desk stations along the walls and plastic bins and crates full of items similar to those I saw in the guys’ basement in Fort Collins. On worktables were examples of drones that DRL uses in its races—bigger drones than the homemade quads I’d examined, with a more insectoid appearance, a more grasshopper-like proﬁle. DRL employs about two dozen people in New York and in Santa Cruz, California. Everyone I saw appeared to be under forty. Horbaczewski and Gury described how they build their drones, lay out and construct their racecourses (which they call lines), and scout for pilots. At the moment, there are about ﬁfty top drone racers in the world, they said. Would-be pro racers can download a race simulator and try to ﬂy a pro-level time on it. The best among them compete at an e-sports event, and the winner gets a seventy-ﬁve-thousand-dollar contract. The company also reviews GoPro ﬂight videos that pilots send in. Online participation provides a constant international inﬂux of potential new stars.
“The early drone-racing leagues did not understand the presentation problem,” Horbaczewski said. “Drone racing is not the new Nascar. You’re not adapting a sport that already exists and inserting drones into it. This is a sport that’s coming from the future. In cyberspace and in movies, people started watching this type of futuristic sport a long time ago.” “The audience that comes to drone racing is thinking in terms of video games and classic SFX sci-ﬁ races,” Gury said. “They’re thinking of the pod race in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.’ They’re thinking of the speederbike chase through the Endor forest in ‘Return of the Jedi.’” “When you create a drone race, you are going head to head with sci-ﬁ,” Horbaczewski said. “Until DRL became involved, kids were showing up at drone races and saying, ‘This is not the “Star Wars” I was promised,’” Gury said. “I came to this sport from being the chief revenue oﬃcer at Tough Mudder obstacle races,” Horbaczewski said. “So I had experience growing a new sport. But if I’d known all the tech advances that we would have to create ourselves, I never would have got involved.” “The ﬁrst time we laid out a smoothly working line that was also complicated and really interesting was in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, for a race in our 2016 season,” Gury said. “We had drones racing through the stands, and then going under them, down tunnels and concourses inside the stadium. We looked at each other and said, ‘No one has ever done this before.’” “Ryan is the da Vinci of drones,” Horbaczewski said. “And in the process we’ve hit on a bunch of patentable new technologies, just the way that the Le Mans auto race popularized disk brakes.” “The job is pure fun, too,” Gury said. “Last summer, to show it could be done, we set the Guinness World Record for the fastest ground speed by a remotecontrolled, battery-powered quadcopter. This was in Cunningham Park, in Queens. The Guinness people are very scrupulous, and they showed up and checked everything out and brought their own speed-measurement expert. We’d built a new quad specially to deal with problems we had before, when the
quad couldn’t handle the energy and burst into ﬂames. This time it worked perfectly. It went up and back on a hundred-metre course so fast you almost didn’t see it, and attained an average top speed of 163.5 miles per hour. At its fastest, it reached almost one-eighty.” “It was like that moment in the ﬁrst ‘Star Wars’ when the star cruiser jumps to light speed,” Horbaczewski said. “That’s what we’re trying to do—translate sci-ﬁ eﬀects into real life, and create ridiculously high-level, high-performance ﬂying robots to show the world.”
ast year, a drone crashed through L the window of the Kate Spade store at the corner of Mercer Street and Broome Street, in SoHo. The incident occurred on the Fourth of July at about eight-thirty in the evening. The N.Y.P.D. did not ﬁnd out who did it, and the employees of the store, which sells luxury handbags, refused to speculate. I had never seen a dronecrash news story before, but others soon followed. In September, a drone piloted by someone too far away to see it crashed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter ﬂying a security patrol over the water oﬀ Staten Island. The helicopter landed safely, and the National Transportation Safety Board held its ﬁrst investigation of a midair collision involving a drone. In October, a drone hit the wing of a Skyjet passenger plane coming in to land at Jean Lesage International Airport, near Quebec City— the ﬁrst conﬁrmed collision between a commercial aircraft and a drone in North America. No serious damage, no injuries, and no suspects. The Federal Aviation Administration has required that all pilots of drones that weigh between .55 and ﬁfty-ﬁve pounds be registered with the agency. In practice, this is often not done. If a drone has an accident resulting in property damage, F.A.A. rules say that the pilot must report the incident; that, too, is often disregarded. Drone crashes leave few clues because a drone without a pilot registration number on it is diﬃcult to trace. Reports of drones ﬂying above crowds, or within ﬁve miles of airports, or near houses, or above four hundred feet are not uncommon, though all those acts are against F.A.A. regulations. Sales of drones for recre-
ational and business use go up every year. The F.A.A. predicts that by 2020 seven million drones will be sold annually—4.3 million for recreational ﬂying and 2.7 million for business. Farmers survey their ﬁelds with drones and keep track of how crops and water look in hard-to-get-to sections. Roofers examine rooftops, maintenance workers inspect power lines and cell-phone towers, and real-estate agents make ﬂattering aerial videos of their properties with drones. Drones do a lot of ﬁlming for TV and movies. In 2017, for the ﬁrst time ever, the ﬁre departments of both New York City and Los Angeles used drones to help in ﬁghting ﬁres. Three hundred drones ﬂew in synch during Lady Gaga’s halftime performance at the 2017 Super Bowl. In a state park in western New York, a drone helped rescue a dog that had fallen into a gorge. A drone hunted down escapees from a juvenile prison in Louisiana. Police arrested a couple in California and accused them of delivering drugs by drone. A doughnut shop in Denver delivered doughnuts by drone. In March, 2017, Amazon made its ﬁrst package delivery in the U.S. using its new drone system, Prime Air. At key moments in American history, pilots have been among the coolest people. For about twenty years, Mississippi steamboat pilots carried a cachet, with their expertise about how to navigate the ever-changing river. The ranks of river pilots produced our greatest writer. During the Cold War, ﬁghter-jet pilots who became astronauts deﬁned a high level of cool. Nicholas Horbaczewski has described the top-level drone racers as “the best ﬂavor of nerd.” Maybe drone pilots will represent those historically cool types morphed into the future. Already, because of budget cuts, governmenttrained military pilots with experience of actual in-air ﬂying are fewer, and commercial airlines have a smaller pool of pilots to draw on. Maybe someday we’ll all be ﬂying in commercial airplanes directed by calm, professional, reassuring pilots who are sitting on the ground. The future will produce more jobs
requiring an ability to ﬂy drones. Zach and Jordan have friends who ﬂy drones for avocado ranchers and movie crews and search-and-rescue squads. Millions of kids are already honing the necessary skills just by playing video games. Kids purely love to ﬂy drones. A lot of people in this country are looking for fun and satisfying ways to make a living. Why not teach kids how to ﬂy F.P.V. well and safely, in school or other programs? We should follow South Korea’s example. It makes sense to get ready, because in the future there are going to be a whole lot of drones ﬂying around. The lighted screen always seemed to me to have no inner boundary. You could disappear into it forever and have no reason to come out. I thought this was too bad, because I am an admirer of reality and hated for it to be set aside. I felt for the kids lost in their screens, because it seemed they never played outdoors. It did not occur to me that the unreality of the lighted screen could lead us back into the actual world, but that is the case with drones. It’s fun to play at commanding a genie in a fantasy, but ﬂying a drone oﬀers at least a sketch of what it might be like to have a genie’s reach in real life. With widely available drones, we’ve arrived at a moment in which, for a change, reality can oﬀer a more powerful appeal. As I was coming back from the afternoon of ﬂying with Jordan and Travis in the Cache la Poudre Canyon, the sun declined to the west and infused the wraparound landscape of mountains and prairie with a reddish western light. Jordan surveyed the scene through his windshield. “Flying my quad makes me part of this,” he said, gesturing. We pulled up to an intersection. “Even that stoplight,” he continued, as we waited for it to change. “I mean, think of what it would be like to ﬂy a quad around the stoplight, to look at it up close from every angle, including from above. My original dream was to be an artist with a focus on photography, and I’m kind of fulﬁlling it in a way I didn’t expect. With my quad, I’m seeing things no one has ever seen.” THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCELO GOMES
he college freshman, being high, was also a little paranoid. Therefore, as he boarded the Amtrak Colonial he had the impression that people could tell. Why was everyone staring? Some smiling, some raising eyebrows, a few shaking their heads. Do I reek? Eugene thought. I used Binaca. Then he remembered what he was wearing. The white fur coat. The pink sunglasses. The striped collegiate scarf knotted at his neck. Sort of a new look for him, part glam, part New Wave. Eugene’s little secret? He wanted to be beautiful. If that didn’t work, noticeable would do. He unzipped his coat and fanned himself, hot from running down the platform. It was a late-November afternoon, in the confusing year of 1978, and Eugene was headed back to school after a wild weekend exploring the demimonde. Eugene knew that was a French word associated with women of dubious morals, but in his mind it included the teen runaways at that chicken-hawk bar Stigwood had taken him to, Saturday night; plus Stigwood himself, who was rich and debauched. The main thing about the demimonde was that nobody back at the dorm had a clue about it. Only Eugene. As he started down the aisle, he watched passengers’ reactions through his sunglasses. One lady poked her husband, as if to say, “Only in New York!” An old guy with a mean red face and a Teamster’s haircut scowled and said something that sounded like “Fruitcake.” That was ﬁne. Scandalizing the sensibilities of the masses was part of the vocation. Better get used to it, Eugene told himself. He was so caught up in the act of scandalizing sensibilities that it took him a while to notice something. The train was packed. Should have got here earlier. Raphael had made him late. They were up in Stigwood’s bedroom, Eugene packing his duﬀel, when Raphael said, “Want to play a game with me? Please. It’s fun.” Raphael was Stigwood’s boyfriend from Venezuela. He was lying across the bed, dressed in tight salmon ﬂares, a Qiana shirt, and platform shoes, his
black hair cut in a wedge, like Dorothy Hamill’s. Raphael was about Eugene’s age, but he didn’t go to college; he worked at a hair salon, sweeping up hair. The rest of the time he lounged around the town house. Eugene felt sorry for Raphael. He hadn’t known there were male concubines. Also, Raphael had just lit a joint. So Eugene said, “O.K., I’ll play for a minute.” Raphael passed the doobie and picked up a deck of cards. “Everybody has a word map,” he explained. “Your word map is how you feel, inside, as a person. Here. I show you.” Raphael laid three cards on the bedspread. Each bore a word. Sensitivity. Ardor. Celebration. “Pick a card,” Raphael said. “How you feel, inside.” Eugene took a hit and thought about it. His mom always called him sensitive. But not in a way he liked. You had to be sensitive to be a poet, of course, but Eugene’s mom meant more like that time at swimming lessons, when he’d refused to get into the pool. You do something once and your family never stops talking about it. So: no to Sensitivity. Ardor was like armpit plus odor. Celebration, on the other hand, had appeal. First of all, it was Latinate, and Eugene had been taking Latin since seventh grade. “Celebration” was also a Broadway musical by the creators of “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in the history of Oﬀ Broadway theatre. Eugene’s high school had staged “Celebration” his sophomore year, and Mr. Baxter, the drama teacher, had cast Eugene as Orphan, one of the leads. Plus, Eugene did like to party. “Celebration,” he told Raphael. “Deﬁnitely.” Raphael was dealing more cards when Stigwood burst in. Stigwood was a friend of Mr. Baxter’s, from his New York acting days. Having been alerted by Eugene that he was coming East for college, Stigwood had invited him to stay if he were ever in New York, so that was what Eugene had been doing. This was his third visit. Stigwood had a girlfriend, too. Her name was Sally. Eugene wasn’t sure if she knew about Raphael. Probably not. “Gay, straight,”
Stigwood said, “it’s all a bunch of bullshit.” Right now, Stigwood had his Caligula face on, eyes dead, tongue lolling. That didn’t usually happen until later at night. Ignoring Eugene’s presence, he crossed the bedroom and tackled Raphael from behind.Then mounted him and sucked on his face. Raphael didn’t resist at ﬁrst. But when Stigwood stuck his hand down Raphael’s pants he shoved him onto the ﬂoor. “You know what, Jerry? You treat me like a slut,” he shouted. “Well, let me tell you something. I am not your slut!” While this was going on, Eugene had retreated to the corner of the room. Seemed only polite. Plus, if he remained inconspicuous he could watch what happened next. But then he remembered his train. “See you guys! Thanks for everything, Mr. Stigwood!” he said, and booked. Got to Penn Station with two minutes to spare. Which was why, now, no seats. He kept going down the aisle, searching. This train was in better condition than the subways, at least. They were totally trashed. All weekend, Eugene had had “Shattered” stuck in his head, Mick singing, You got rats on the West Side. Bedbugs uptown. What a mess this town’s in tatters, I ’ve been shattered. My brain’s been battered, spattered all over Manhattan. Shadoobie, shattered, shattered . . . Hold on. Did he just sing that out loud? Now people were really staring. Stigwood always had the strongest dope! New York was dying. But that was O.K. It was in dying empires that the greatest poets appeared. Virgil in Rome. Dante in Florence. Baudelaire in Paris. Decadence. Eugene liked that word. It was like “decay” and “hence.” Things falling apart over time. A sweet smell like that of rotten bananas, or of bodies ripe from iniquitous exertion, could pervade an entire age, at which point someone came along to give voice to how messed up things were and, in so doing, made them beautiful again. That was what Eugene wanted to do. First, though, he had to learn prosody. Up ahead, he spotted an empty seat. Headed for it only to ﬁnd an overnight bag there, its owner hiding behind a newspaper. Two rows later, same THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
thing, only this time the seat-hogger was pretending to nap. People were such fakers. Take the ballerina, for instance. Hadn’t she promised to meet Eugene at the movies last week? And when he’d suggested bringing granola bars, so they wouldn’t have to pay for candy, hadn’t she said, “Good idea! Can you bring some for me?” But then he’d waited under the marquee, with a whole box of Oats ’n Honey, and she never showed up, and later he heard she’d been in the common room, drinking Asti with Rob, the R.A. with the beard. Now he reached the end of the train car. On the door a blue button said Press. “See this button?” Eugene said to himself. “This is Rob’s face,” and he punched it, hard. To his surprise, the doors opened with a whoosh, like an airlock on a spaceship. Wow. Cool. Now he was between cars. Daredevil-like. He looked down, expecting to see tracks below—the train had started moving—but the area was an enclosed, accordion-like sleeve that bent gracefully as the train pulled out of the station. Peering into the next car, Eugene saw more faces. It was like that poem from his “Imagism” seminar. “In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound. Since no one could hear him in this little space, Eugene recited the poem. It wasn’t long, just this: The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet black bough.
Eugene’s friend Mike always made fun of him when he read out loud. He said Eugene had a “poetry voice.” But what could he do? He didn’t like his regular voice. Too nasal. Anyway, the reciting helped. He felt better already. To enter the next car, Eugene just pressed the button gently. Same story, though. Totally packed. He wasn’t going to have to stand the whole way to Providence, was he? He had homework to do! He went into the next car. And the next. Each one stuﬃer and more crowded. As he was entering yet another car, he caught sight of his reﬂection and turned back to study it after 52
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
the door closed. The curly Lou Reed hair, the Warhol sunglasses. Those were new. He’d seen the frames in an optometrist’s window and gone straight in and bought them. Then decided to tint the lenses, and had picked dark rose, which maybe had been a bit much. Something told Eugene not to wear the sunglasses around campus. Why not try them out in New York? So many storefront windows in which to look at yourself and decide. While he examined his reﬂection, deciding, Eugene heard a mellow-toned voice. “This seat’s free,” the voice said. Eugene turned. Didn’t see anyone. Then lifted his sunglasses. Five rows deep, a man beckoned. He had a yellow cable-knit sweater tied around his shoulders. Blond hair that looked straightened, or dyed, or both. Not again, Eugene thought. Man. Everywhere I go! On the other hand, there was no place else to sit. ifteen minutes earlier, as he limped F onto the train, Kent Jeﬀries had been in no mood for company. He was too wrecked. God, what a weekend! Outrageous! What was the joke Mickey had made? At that bathhouse? Oh, yeah: Can I borrow an oriﬁce you’re not using? The last thing Kent needed now was some turkey talking his ear oﬀ. Accordingly, he’d taken a seat by the window, setting his bag beside him. Then he’d spread his Pierre Cardin blazer—the rust, not the Kelly green— on top. That should do it. While people boarded, he leafed through Variety. As seats grew scarce, he started to worry, and laid his head back, pretending to sleep. No sooner had his eyes closed than images of the past two days ﬂickered in his mind. Friday night: That after-hours place in the Village. Cable spools for tables. Rough trade in the back room. More Mickey’s thing than his. Saturday: They climbed into a refrigerator truck in the meatpacking
district. Pitch-black inside. Smelled like a stable. Three dozen men creating a vortex, a ﬂesh whirlpool, that sucked you in and around and out again. Climbing down afterward, Kent said, “I felt a little overdressed. How about you?” Next thing he knew he was taking a leak at someplace called the Dungeon. The urinal was open at the bottom. As Kent stared down into the bowels of the earth, a face appeared. A digniﬁed, older gentleman, trembling with anticipation. Deﬁnitely Mickey’s thing. Finally, they went to that disco everyone was raving about, the Ice Palace. They were on the dance ﬂoor, doing poppers, when from out of the neon-lit, fog-machine fog a small Puerto Rican queen strutted past, wearing nothing but Christmas lights. “Where do you keep the batteries?” Mickey called. “In the shape of a dildo up my ass!” Sassy! But still not Kent’s thing. Then it was Sunday and he woke up in Mickey’s basement apartment on Cornelia Street. People’s ankles going past the dirty windows. Already noon. Mickey entered with a tube of Preparation H. “Dab in each nostril,” he said. “Home remedy.” “I’m never drinking again,” Kent groaned. But at brunch, when Mickey ordered a Bloody, Kent said, “Oh, all right.” One led to three, by which point they’d developed a rationale. They were fortifying themselves. Had a diﬃcult day ahead of them. At two, they were going to clean out Jasper’s digs, now that Jas was sick and had moved back to Texas. Revisiting the scene of all their revels wasn’t going to be easy. Not for any of them, and least of all for Kent, whose name used to be on the lease. It also meant seeing Ron, who’d lived in the apartment recently. Ron was a purely stopgap measure, in Kent’s opinion. Skinny. Bucktoothed. Taller than Tommy Tune. “I suppose he’s handy when you need something from the top shelf,” Kent had said to Jasper once, on the phone. “Don’t be bitchy,” Jasper said.
Ron still had keys. By the time Kent and Mickey arrived, he’d aired the place out and prepared a pitcher of mimosas. Louie and Ed were already going through Jasper’s stuﬀ. The apartment looked unchanged. Still the familiar mélange, the Chinese trunk next to the Victorian love seat next to the bust of Jasper done by that sculptor in Key West. Jas’s record collection—the ragtime, the Lotte Lehmann. His Roman trinkets, his colored-glass bottles. But, despite Jasper’s ﬂair for decorating, the spirit had gone out of the place. It looked rundown. Mouse droppings. Old-cigarette smell. They drank mimosas while they dickered. Ed wanted Jasper’s secretary with the broken leg. Louie had dibs on the framed poster for the Living Theatre, signed by Julian Beck. Jasper’s books, his annotated scripts, his correspondence with theatre bigwigs (Brustein, Foreman, Grotowski) were to be boxed up and sent to Rice University. What did Kent want? The leather pig footstool from England? The very tiny Miró? Nothing was in the right drawers anymore. He couldn’t ﬁnd any scissors to cut the packing tape. Finally, he went into the bedroom, stood on the brass bed, and reached up under the lighting ﬁxture—and there it was. His old stash, from 1971. Jasper didn’t approve of grass. Kent had always had to sneak out to the ﬁre escape. When he exited the bedroom, Ron was on the phone with Jasper at the hospital. He held the phone toward the stereo and said, “Jas, we’re playing Bobby Short in your honor.” Everyone who got on the phone with Jas screamed with laughter at something he told them. Jas’s old chestnuts. In bed by twelve, home by three. He’s very butch. He gets it from his mother. Look, he was dead. How can you be jealous? Then it was Kent’s turn. He tried to sound upbeat. Festive. Good thing he was an actor. “Last chance to change your mind
and come back, Jas,” he said. “We’ll just unpack everything.” “What the fuck’s the matter with Ron?” Jasper said. “Siccing all these well-wishers on me. I’m in no condition.” Jasper sounded mad. That made Kent happy. Ron was getting on his nerves, too, presiding over everything, auditioning for the role of widow. “What do you expect from an understudy?” Kent said. Jas laughed. Started coughing. Fought down the cough enough to say, “That’s exactly what he is! Only good enough for the matinée!” As he paused to catch his breath, the receiver ﬁlled with noise. Phone calls to Jasper were party lines now, three people on at once: Kent, Jasper, and Jasper’s emphysema, wheezing in the background. Kent’s voice was softer as he said, “How are you doing down there, Jas? Really.” “Oh, well. Back in the bosom of my family. You know how I’ve always felt about bosoms.” And now Kent managed it: the scream of hilarity. “I’m tired,” Jas said. “Hanging up.” It was Ron who ended up bawling. He crumpled onto the ﬂoor, crying out, “It’s so fucking unfair! God!” Louie and Ed knelt down, patting and stroking him.
Kent went to the window and lit a cigarette. At drama school, they’d done an exercise where you had to pretend to be on an iceberg. The other students had shivered and hugged themselves, hopping around. Kent had had a diﬀerent idea. He’d gone to the edge of the stage, alone, and let the coldness seep into his skin. Squinted his eyes. Tightened his sphincter. Retracted his scrotum. Just became ice. Frozen. Feeling nothing. That was how you played cold. It worked for a shivering peasant in Chekhov or a naked Fool on the heath. Now Kent did it at other times as well. Disconnected his phone, turned oﬀ the lights. People rang his bell, shouted at his window, “Answer the door, Kent! We know you’re there!” Sitting in the dark, frozen, the person Kent was at those times didn’t answer to the name on his Equity card. He was still Peter J. Belknap, Liz and Roger’s boy, from Buﬀalo. Good-looking kid. Class president. Girls all crazy about him. Liz was gone now. That was another reason Kent shut himself in for days at a time. To think about her. Liz coming down the stairs, ﬁxing a diamond earring, on her way out to dinner with Roger. Kent/Peter, ten years old, in charge of making cocktails. The
“How am I supposed to redo my landscaping and fight an authoritarian regime?”
• way Liz smiled when he brought her drink, and said to Roger, “Darling, where did you ﬁnd this new bartender? He’s terribly good.” Behind closed eyelids, shamming sleep on the train, Kent Jeﬀries thought about Liz, his dear sweet mother. His eyes were welling. He shifted in the seat, turning his head toward the window, and slipped oﬀ his Gucci loafers. He’d bought a new pair at Bergdorf ’s, stupidly wore them out of the store, and now had blisters on both feet. That was why he was limping. Finally, the train pulled out of the station. Kent ﬁgured it was safe to open his eyes. That was when he saw the boy. In the Eskimo coat. And the Elton John sunglasses. Staring into the door window behind him like Narcissus into his pool. Kent knew who the kid reminded him of. Himself, twenty years ago. Grow up queer in the sticks and it’s like hearing a broadcast in the distance. You can make out the frequency all right, but the words get garbled along the way. So, when you ﬁnally run away to New York, you end up dressing like this kid, in some wild approximation of ﬂamboyant. Kent had taken a bus from Buﬀalo to Port Authority and then the subway to Christopher Street. Found a wall to lean against. White tank top. Cutoﬀs so short the pockets showed. Jasper, on his way from teaching at 54
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
• HB Studios, picked him up. Took Kent straight home, but only to feed him and let him use the shower. Made him sleep on the couch. The next day, he took him to a dermatologist to clear up his acne. Kent was seventeen. Jasper thirtyeight. About the age Kent was now. It was sympathy that made him call out to the boy. He knew how hard it could be. When the kid lifted his sunglasses, his eyes looked just as pink. Stoned out of his mind. If that was an advantage, Kent tried not to acknowledge it. He didn’t speak to the boy until they were out of the tunnel. “I hope no polar bears died for that,” Kent said. “What?” the boy said, coming out of his stupor. “Oh. This coat? No. It’s fake.” With a wiggle of its hips, the train shifted to a new track. They still had a four-hour ride ahead of them. Kent reached across the seat and touched the fur. “Could have fooled me,” he said. e was getting used to this by now. H Attention from men. Certain kind of men. Last night, for instance, Stigwood took Eugene and Raphael out to eat. They were drinking Kir Royales when a friend of Stigwood’s came up and, without even asking, started playing
with Eugene’s curls. As if Eugene were there for that purpose alone. Which, Eugene realized, he was. He let himself be fondled. It felt nice, to be honest, and it wasn’t like any girls were oﬀering. Also, it meant he could ﬂag a waiter for another Kir Royale. Celebration! Most of the time it wasn’t so overt. Eugene would be hitchhiking and some married guy would pick him up, then touch his leg one too many times. Or at a party, instead of passing a joint, some stranger would hold it to his lips and watch him inhale. On the street men stared, their eyes aggressive, desperate, and frightened all at once. In some neighborhoods they came from all directions, like Space Invaders. It was like being a pretty girl. The pluses and minuses of that. Did Eugene give oﬀ some kind of signal? Was it his earring? He’d forgotten about that. He’d pierced his ear himself, in his dorm room, using a needle and an ice cube. As soon as it healed he was going to wear a hoop, but for now he had a gold stud from the ladies’ section. But here was the thing about the men who pestered Eugene. They talked about interesting subjects. Existentialism. The New York School. Bertolt Brecht. Eugene loved the way girls looked and smelled, and how their voices sounded, but they didn’t know much more about the world than he did. Often less. Sometimes a lot less. You had to keep it under control, though. Otherwise, things could get hairy. As soon as he sat down on the train, Eugene made clear he didn’t have time for conversation. He lowered his tray table, hauled out his Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes and Epodes, and opened to Ode XLV. He’d never translated Latin stoned before. Maybe it would be excellent. Didn’t seem like it. Just seemed harder. Peeking at the English translation on the opposite page was cheating. The train had come out of the tunnel. They were on an elevated track, passing close to slummy-looking apartment buildings. Bedsheets for curtains. Naked light bulbs on cords.
Eugene stared at the Latin. Chewed his fountain pen. Regarded the ode from a diﬀerent angle. Gazed out the window again. And, in his notebook, wrote this instead: Each window I see into contains a slice of life sliced by the train I’m in two kids watching TV on the ﬂoor an old man reading the paper and just a couch, all alone like me
The man tapped his leg. Uh-oh. But he just needed to get out. Eugene raised the tray and swivelled his knees. Then went back to translating. At ﬁrst, Eugene had taken Latin because it was required. But in ninth grade, when you could switch to a living language, he didn’t. He liked that Latin was dead. He liked that only smart kids took it. He liked his idiosyncratic Latin teachers, Dr. Fletcher, who played “Shoo-Fly Pie” on his guitar to teach them dactylic hexameter, and Miss McNally, who described their grammar book as “gruel-colored.” Gruel was like “gray” and “cruel.” Which was like Latin grammar! Most kids couldn’t take it. They ﬂailed. Not Eugene. When he opened his Latin grammar book, he felt close to invincible. Exegi monumentum aere perennius. “I have made . . . a monument . . . in the air.” No, not “air,” dummy. Aere, from aereus, meaning “bronze.” “I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.” Horace meant his odes. This whole book. Jeez. Talk about conceited. The thing was, though? Horace had written this ode two thousand years ago, and here was Eugene, on Amtrak, translating it. He looked up to see his seatmate returning down the aisle, carrying something. Eugene looked away. He was wondering a couple of things. First, if it was even possible, at this point in history, to imagine people reading your stuﬀ two millennia from now. Second, what could you do to increase your chances? The man stepped over Eugene’s legs and reclaimed his seat.
“I got you a libation,” he said. A what? Oh. Beers. In a cardboard tray. Looked pretty good. Eugene had the worst cotton mouth. hey drank the ﬁrst six-pack in siT lence, the kid writing in his notebook. The train crossed into Connecticut as the sky darkened. Almost 5 p.m. At New Haven, they got hitched to a diﬀerent engine, and then were on their way again. Past New London. Mystic. An hour outside Providence, the boy got up, presumably to go to the bathroom. Kent Jeﬀries pulled out a twenty and said, “How about another round?” The boy hesitated. “Will you watch my stuﬀ?” he said. As if someone might steal the Latin book. Or the Liberace coat. “It’s safe with me,” Kent Jeﬀries said. By the time they started on the second six-pack, the atmosphere was diﬀerent. The boy had ﬁnished his homework and become chatty. He was less stoned, more drunk. They talked about acting––the boy was excited to meet a professional actor. He’d done theatre himself, in high school. Now he wanted to be a poet and was studying English literature and Classics. He held up his Latin translation. “Read it to me,” Kent said. “Really? O.K. But only if you critique my delivery. I’m going to have to give readings someday. My friend says I use this fake voice when I read out loud.” “I’ll be the judge,” Kent said. Holding the notebook like a hymnal, the boy intoned: I have made a monument more lasting than bronze And higher than the royal site of the pyramids which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind can erode Nor the countless succession of years, and the ﬂight of the seasons. I will not entirely die! And a large part of me will avoid the grave.
Kent paid half attention. His mind was elsewhere, full of light. Moving at the same speed as the train, which was whistling along now, moonlit coves ﬂashing by, the ocean out there somewhere, gravid in its depths. The boy wore a secondhand shirt, its celluloid collar missing, and black suspenders. So pale and
thin inside these coverings, like a ﬂower stalk. A reed. Look who’s getting poetic now? The kid’s reading voice was aﬀected. He sounded like an amateur doing Shakespeare. Had no idea who he was yet, but it was touching to see how fervently he dreamed of being something. That’s what Jas never understands. How I actually feel about them. He always wants to reduce it to— The boy had stopped. He was looking at Kent expectantly. “Read it again,” Kent said. “This time pretend you’re talking to somebody you care about.” “Like who?” Onstage, Kent always imagined Liz. Liz, out in the house, her head to one side, playing with her bracelet, and listening. “Is there anybody you’d like to impress? This poem’s sort of show-oﬀy.” The boy said, “There’s this girl. At school. I don’t know her very well. But I could use her.” “Try it. Again.” The boy complied. A girl. Hmm. Didn’t mean anything, necessarily. Kent waited until the boy had ﬁnished. “Better,” he said. “Really? It sounded worse to me.” “You have to use the instrument you have,” Kent said. “Any good voice coach will tell you that. You can work on your instrument. But you can’t replace it.” “I’m going to remember that,” the boy said. “Thanks!” He seemed genuinely grateful. “It would be easier reading my own stuﬀ. But with Horace—” “Heavy lifting, I know.” After that, they were silent. The train rumbled into Rhode Island. The sky was black. Twenty minutes later, the conductor called out Providence. As they pulled into the station, they said nothing. As if embarrassed by their previous intimacy. The boy gathered his things and, without a goodbye, strode unsteadily down the aisle and onto the dark train platform. That was for the best. It really was. Kent put on his blazer and limped out of the train. Colder out. No moon anymore. Even darker in the parking lot. He was in his car, pulling onto Waterman THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
Street, when a shape lurched into his path. Kent rolled down his window. “Need a ride?” The boy said nothing. Just swayed, gazing in the direction of College Hill. Then they were both in the car, the heater blowing cold air, the radio on. Kent too bombed to drive but doing so. The boy ﬁddled with the radio. “I think a nightcap is in order,” Kent said. “I’m totally wasted already,” said the boy. Kent made a left, away from campus. “Is that a yes?” he said. was one of those historic houses on IthattBeneﬁt Street. No front yard. Plaque said “Ebenezer Swampscott, Whaler, 1764.” Where Eugene was from, nothing was that old. In ﬁfth grade he’d gone on a ﬁeld trip to Fort Dearborn, but he’d had to blur his vision to erase the skyscrapers and car factories so that he could imagine the days when Indian canoes, laden with pelts, plied the river. Plied was like “plunge,” “ﬂy,” and “try,” all at once.
The man had a hard time with the key, even though it was his house. To compensate, when he got the door open he went all English butler, bowing and scraping. “After you, My Lord.” The low-ceilinged room they entered was full of old-fashioned furniture and oil paintings. The only modern thing was the stereo, which the man headed straight for. It felt diﬀerent, being alone with him. More tense. Maybe Eugene should leave. “Have you ever heard Mabel Mercer?” the man said, putting on a record. “Who?” “If you’re going to be a poet, you have to know Mabel Mercer.” He lowered the needle, scratching issued through the speakers, and then a piano tinkled and this voice came out. Low. Deep. Not singing, exactly. More like talking with extreme precision. Hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. The man stood straight now, index ﬁnger raised. “Listen to her phrasing,” he said. Eugene listened. He was glad to have an assignment. Meanwhile, the man
“Tell me about it—last night I ate a whole sleeve of Communion wafers.”
disappeared. He returned one song later to hand Eugene a drink. Something ﬁzzy. Tasted like Sprite. Didn’t mix with beer so well. All of a sudden, Eugene’s mouth ﬁlled with saliva. He swallowed, but it reﬁlled. Since opening his mouth didn’t seem like a good idea, he put down his glass and hurried out of the room. He found the guest bathroom and spit into the sink. Was he going to hurl? He couldn’t tell. Mouth ﬁlling again. Eugene closed the door. The lock was a hook-and-eye thingy—wouldn’t keep anybody out. He hooked it, nonetheless. wasn’t getting sick in there, TKenthewaskidJeﬀries he? That would crimp things. had come into the hall to listen. Silence from the bathroom. No sound of retching. Vodka tonic had probably been a bad idea. Speaking of which, his glass was empty. He returned to the kitchen. As he got a lime from the refrigerator, his eyes fell on the postcard from Jasper. A few years old now. A sepia-tone image of Jas in a fringed vest, his Wild Bill Hickok goatee graying, and the message “I’m back in N.Y.C., and, for the nonce, this is what I’m doing.” That had been Jas’s last stand. His Alamo. Had to lug that oxygen tank everywhere. Called it Trigger. It pained Kent not to be able to take care of Jasper in his time of need. When Kent had hepatitis, he was in the hospital for a month, his eyes the color of blood oranges. Shivered all the time. Couldn’t get warm. So Jasper had crawled into his hospital bed and held him. All night long. Nurses didn’t like that. They kept saying, “Sir? Visitors aren’t allowed in the beds.” Jasper hissed back, “Haven’t you ever been in love?” 1969. Stonewall still months away. Took guts. I could have died. Didn’t realize it. Too young to realize. Jas knew how serious it was. He found Liz’s number in my address book and called to prepare her. Didn’t tell me until later. So Liz had known. Jasper had said he was a “friend.” But that voice of his. She knew.
Never said a word about it. Nor Roger. What was that line? In the poem the kid had read? I will not entirely die! No, not entirely. Just piece by piece. Kent took his drink back to the living room. Tried to light a cigarette but fumbled it onto his lap. Picked it up. Stuck it in his mouth. Tried the lighter. Once. Twice. Why won’t this fucker—? Oh, wrong end. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag. Exhaled. Just as the record ended, he heard the bathroom door open. t was clear from the beginning where IEugene the night would lead. So why hadn’t seen it? The thing was, he had seen, yet somehow remained blind. Which was like so many things in his life. Like why he wore the white fur coat. And the pink sunglasses. And had an earring. All these things had adhered to him, as though he’d played no part in acquiring them, but who else had acquired them if not him? He’d gone oﬀ to college to read the great works of literature and philosophy and to understand himself better, but in the few months he’d been there it was as though some other self had taken residence inside Eugene and was making decisions for him. He was still bent over the sink. You were supposed to puke in the toilet, but sinks were easier. Just rinse afterward. If stuﬀ got stuck around the drain, take out the plug. Eugene had experience with situations like this. One time, up at Mr. Baxter’s cabin, he’d drunk white wine from a half-empty bottle in the fridge. Tasted sour. He got a killer headache and collapsed on the couch, his gorge rising. R.J. and Mr. Baxter outside somewhere, snowshoeing. Should he use the toilet? The angle would be better. Before he could decide, though, his body spasmed. Dry heaves. Hurt like a bitch. Mr. Baxter’s cottage wasn’t winterized. They could heat only one bedroom, using a space heater. For that reason, the three of them slept in the same bed, R.J. and Mr. Baxter on each side and Eugene, who was the youngest, in the middle. Another dry heave convulsed him.
Then nothing. Was that it? Huh. Surprisingly, he felt somewhat better now. Turned on the tap and splashed water on his face. And there it was in the mirror: that inscrutable factor. As much time as Eugene spent staring in mirrors, you’d think he’d know what he looked like. But he didn’t. It depended. From certain angles he was actually good-looking. But if he adjusted the panels of his parents’ three-way mirror to see his proﬁle it was as if this other, commediadell’arte face leaped out. Scaramouche, the clown. Was that what he looked like? It would explain a lot. For instance, why the ballerina had stood him up. How could a creature like her, so small and perfect, go out with someone partially deformed like Eugene? If Disney made an animated ﬁlm about them, the animators would render the ballerina as a pretty, longlashed sea otter, sleekly twirling in the waves, whereas Eugene would be—he didn’t know—a South American tapir. How could two such divergent animals ever consort? (The otter lived in the sea, so even if the tapir pursued her he would only drown.) No, the tapir would just be there for comic relief. A sidekick. A subplot. He’d get one song, tops. The ﬁrst time Eugene had noticed the ballerina was at freshman orientation. She was standing apart from everyone else, pressing her back against the wall, wearing maroon Danskins and pink leg warmers. At the center of the room, Rob, the R.A., was dispensing info on birth-control availability. While he spoke, the ballerina kept stretching and limbering up, as though preparing to go onstage. Other girls thought she put on airs. Well, maybe she did. But so did Eugene. That was a nice way to think about the stuﬀ he did. He’d attended a dance recital where the ballerina performed.The other dancers were larger and thicker than she was. Better for modern. The ballerina had looked so tiny in comparison—she was like a ballerina on top of a music box. It was amazing that leotards were
legal. The ballerina’s nipples were distinctly visible. This was O.K., because she was engaged in Art. In the audience, paying close attention, Eugene noticed that the ballerina, for all her delicacy, was perspiring. Probably even smelling a little. She had super-deﬁned muscles in her shoulders and thighs. Three days later, he saw her crossing the green and got up the courage to tell her how great she’d been. “Thanks!” she said, smiling. That was when he’d asked her to the movies. He’d waited outside the theatre until the coming attractions started. But you know what? The ballerina’s not showing had done something to Eugene that he must have liked. It didn’t feel good, exactly, but it was familiar. It felt as if there were a drain inside him, as in a bathtub, and being stood up by the ballerina had pulled the rubber stopper out, so that Eugene’s blood drained away. It drained out from a spot right under his armpit and above his ribs—the place of ardor. Maybe that was his word all along. Ardor sort of hurt. The next day, Eugene had put on his fur coat and his new sunglasses and taken the train to New York to spend the weekend at Stigwood’s. While there, he’d managed to get trashed enough to put the ballerina out of his mind. But now that he was back in Providence he was thinking about her again. Hoping he wouldn’t run into her on campus. Hoping he would. He stared into the bathroom mirror. His earring glinted; the skin around it looked inﬂamed. When he squeezed his lobe, pus ran out. That was attractive. He clamped a hand towel to his ear. Now that his nausea had subsided, he was just drunk. He tossed the towel. Didn’t even bother to hang it up. Unhooked the hook and lurched out of the bathroom. Back in the living room, he saw his drink. The man sitting in the shadows, smoking, waiting. Eugene picked up his drink and THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
downed it. Four gulps. Throat-heat immediate. Dizziness. He lay down on the ﬂoor. Right where he was. There was no use. No hope. Something was impelling him. He didn’t understand what. So he lay. And waited. ent was about to change the record K when the boy came in. Didn’t say a word. Just snatched up his drink and
the two of them. R.J. had been demoted. Mr. Baxter had demoted him. And Eugene was so happy about that. It was cold that night, too. Space heater going. Eugene had gone to sleep but, in the middle of the night, felt Mr. Baxter’s hand on him, which meant that he must have been awake. Next, Mr. Baxter’s head disappeared under the covers. Eugene had expected the usual thing, with his hand, but then he felt the wetness of a mouth. Since Mr. Baxter couldn’t see him, Eugene opened his eyes. He made the face he and his friends made whenever something really wild happened. The face he would have made if a girl were doing what Mr. Baxter was doing and he wanted to say, “You guys won’t believe what is happening to me right now!” The memory of that moment ﬁlled Eugene’s mind, as the man toiled over him. This wasn’t at all what Eugene wanted. If he had arrived at the Ebenezer Swampscott house unsure of that, he was unsure no longer. The part of himself that Eugene didn’t control had led him here, but now it was as though he could say to that part of himself, “Get out of here! Who put you in charge!” He didn’t like his fur coat all that much. He didn’t want to mislead people with his earring. He still wanted to write poetry, but that was about it. Down Beneﬁt Street to Waterman, then up Waterman and through the parking lot, back to his dorm. He was so tired. He wanted to go to bed. But when he reached his room a surprise greeted him. On his whiteboard was a note from the ballerina. It said, “I’m still up if you want to come by.” When had she written that? What time was it now? Was she still awake?
dispatched it, before lying on the ﬂoor and closing his eyes. As if following orders. A voice in Kent’s head said, “Put a blanket over him. Let him sleep.” Whose voice? Not his. He was in a region beyond words by now. The place he set out to ﬁnd whenever he was drinking. A land where he could be his true, appetitive self and everything was permitted. He rose unsteadily out of his chair. Crossed to the boy and knelt. With quick ﬁngers, suddenly sure of himself, he undid the boy’s belt buckle. Next his ﬂy. The kid was wearing boxer shorts. Easy oﬀ. And would you look at that! Kid was ready for him. Had wanted this all along. Carpe diem, Horace, honey. Kent swooped down. No thinking involved. No person, even. No actor. Only a headlong descent, as if on prey. But that wasn’t right, either. He felt too much tenderness for that. Was it tenderness? Well, he wanted it to be good. Wanted the boy to enjoy it and come back for more. Kent Jeﬀries was surprised, therefore, when in the middle of his eﬀorts the boy stood up. Got to his feet, coldly, and readjusted his clothes. Didn’t so much as look at Kent. Just grabbed his coat and his bag, and strode, with determination, out the front door.
iﬃcult to know what had hapD pened. The boy had got scared, or felt guilty. Was it something I? Oh, well.
he pain of ardor was duller as he walked uphill. It was cold out. He was sobering up fast. Everything made sense suddenly. He’d been lying on the ﬂoor, with his eyes shut, feeling what the man was doing to him while also not feeling it. Not feeling it because (1) he wasn’t in his body anymore, and (2) he was in his fourteen-year-old body, while Mr. Baxter was doing the same thing to him. They were alone at the cabin, just
Maybe he had a quiz in the morning. Nothing to be done but freshen his drink. He banged into the kitchen to eﬀectuate that, then brought his drink back to the living room, where he lit a cigarette, put the phone in his lap, and dialled the number to Jasper’s hospital room. “Hello?” “Jas!” “It’s almost midnight. I told you not to call after nine.”
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
“I wanted to tell you about a change in my life. A resolution.” “You’re drunk,” Jasper said. “I’m not that drunk,” Kent said. “And, anyway, pot calling the kettle.” “I’m completely sober,” Jasper said. If Jasper had been thirty-eight when they met, that made him ﬁfty-nine now. “Age isn’t kind to our kind,” he always said. But he didn’t mean this. Not death. “Don’t you want to hear my resolution?” “I’d like to get some sleep. It’s impossible in these places.” “I met a boy on the train tonight. Coming back from the city. Brought him back here. He left a few minutes ago.” “You can do whatever you like,” Jasper said wearily. “I’ve got other things to deal with now.” “I didn’t touch him, Jas. It was purely platonic. I wanted to tell you that.” “At midnight. You needed to tell me that at midnight.” “Not only that. Also that I was thinking of ﬂying down to see you. When this show’s over.” “I’m not ready for my closeup,” Jasper said. “I miss you, Jas.” What was this? Tears? He was crying. Oh, God. Jasper wheezed on the other end. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. “Let’s do. Let’s think about your coming down. When I’m feeling better. I’ll have to get a lighting designer in here, so you won’t reel back in horror.” “Jas?” “No more. It’s late. Good night, darling.” Kent hung up. Switched oﬀ the light. Sat unmoving. What was that sound? Something scratching to be let in. Oh, the record. He needed to lift the needle. When he got up, he didn’t go to the stereo, however. He went back to the kitchen. There was the vodka bottle. There was Jas’s postcard. For the nonce. That was all there was. The nonce. And then, Curtain. Play ice, Kent Jeﬀries told himself, pouring. Become ice. ballerina opened the door. TShehe“Mydidn’t roommate’s away,” she said. mean it like that. She was just explaining why she was up so late playing music.
Erik Satie. Eugene recognized it. About 1 a.m. at this point. He stood outside her door, listing to the right. He still had his earring in but had left his coat in his room. “I’ve been drinking copious amounts,” Eugene said. “I know. I can smell it.” She invited him in. A poster for “The Turning Point” hung above her bed. Photos of the ballerina dancing were taped to the wall, along with a framed one on her dresser where she stood beside an old, twistedup woman in a wheelchair. Her grandmother, maybe. “Erik Satie,” Eugene said. “I love this.” “You know it? Me, too! It’s so beautiful!” Should he sit on her bed? Or was that too suggestive? He didn’t want to screw things up. Maybe better just to lean against her roommate’s desk. He was waiting for the ballerina’s excuse for not meeting him at the movies. But she seemed to have forgotten. She asked if he wanted tea. Why had she told him to come by? Oh, good. He was still drunk enough to ask. “Why?” the ballerina said. “I felt like talking to you. I can’t ﬁgure you out. You’re strange, but in a good way.” “I’ve decided to be more normal,” Eugene said. “From now on.” “I don’t know if you should,” the ballerina said. On second glimpse, the woman in the wheelchair wasn’t that old. The ballerina saw him looking, and said, “That’s my mom.” He didn’t ask what was wrong. One of those muscle diseases. No wonder Erik Satie. So beautiful, so sad. He looked at the other photos. The ballerina at various ages, leaping, pirouetting. She held up two tea boxes, asking his preference. He chose the box without ﬂowers. She went out to ﬁll the teakettle. While she was gone, Eugene went over to the photos to scope out her body in detail. He was back in place by the time she returned and plugged the teakettle in. Say you were a little girl and you took ballet. Maybe your mother forced
“Help! I’ve fallen into obscurity and I can’t get up!”
• you. Maybe you thought it was part of being pretty. Or because ballet was a realm that girls dominated. A sport that was also an art, so way better than tennis, or gymnastics. Didn’t ballerinas get deformed feet? Wasn’t the discipline cruel and unusual? If so, the ballerina was just as brave-hearted as Eugene sensed she was. “This is weird, but can I see your feet?” he said. “Excuse me?” “I want to see if they’re all messed up. From dancing.” “They are!” the ballerina said. She seemed excited to show him. She lay down on her bed. Eugene came over to look. “Pretty ugly,” he said. (Not true.) Then, brave himself, he sat on the bed and started massaging her feet. “That feels good,” the ballerina said. She closed her eyes. For the next minute they were silent. Eugene started on her other foot. “Can I ask you something?” the ballerina said. “Are you gay?” “No,” Eugene said. “Because I was wondering.” “No!” he repeated. “I wouldn’t care,” she said. “I asked you out on a date!” Eugene said. “That was a date? At the movies?” “Not a very good one.”
• “I’m so sorry!” she said. “I thought it was like a bunch of people were meeting.” It didn’t matter anymore. He wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking that dancing wasn’t like making a monument in bronze. With dance you did it once, perfectly or not, and then it was gone forever. Whereas he was too clumsy for that, and so had to sweat and gnaw his mental cuticles. When she got up to pour the tea, he tried his best. He didn’t have a pen handy, so he had to sound it out in his head: At nine, her mother watches from her wheelchair As she dips and leaps and pirouettes. This girl, once curled inside a body now curling in on itself has been commissioned, on a patch of ﬂoor in Scarsdale to move for both of them.
Or something like that. Eugene could see it now. The scene, if not the words. But he could feel them up there, queuing inside his head. He just had to wait and let them out. Then fuss with them until they hardened. Until they weren’t going anywhere, anymore. THE WRITER’S VOICE PODCAST
Listen to Jeffrey Eugenides read “Bronze.” THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
THE ART WORLD
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY The photography of Peter Hujar.
eter Hujar, who died of AIDSP related pneumonia in 1987, at the age of ﬁfty-three, was among the greatest of all American photographers and has had, by far, the most confusing reputation. A dazzling retrospective, curated by Joel Smith at the Morgan Library & Museum, of a hundred and sixty-four pictures aﬃrms Hujar’s excellence while, if anything, complicating his history. The works range across the genres of portraiture, nudes, cityscape, and still-life—the stillest of all from the catacombs of Palermo, Italy, shot in 1963, when he was there with his lover at the time, the artist Paul Thek. The ﬁnest are portraits, not only of people. Some memorialize the existence of cows, sheep, and—one of my favorites—an individual goose, with an eagerly conﬁding mien. The quality of Hujar’s hand-done prints, tending to sumptuous blacks and simmering grays, transﬁxes. He was a darkroom master, maintaining technical standards for which he got scant credit except among certain cognoscenti. He never hatched a signature look to rival those of more celebrated elders who inﬂuenced him, such as Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, or those of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, younger peers who learned from him. His pictures share, in place of a style, an unfailing rigor that can only be experienced, not described. Hujar’s celebrity was, is, and always will be associated with a downtown bohemia that ﬂourished in New York 60
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
between the late nineteen-sixties and the onset of the AIDS plague. Tall and handsome, volatile, epically promiscuous, and chronically broke, he had a starry constellation of close friends, including Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag. Portrait sitters—male, female, and very often ambiguous—came and went at his cheap-rent loft above the Eden Theatre (once the Yiddish Folks Theatre and now a multiplex), at Twelfth Street and Second Avenue. He lived the bohemian dream of becoming legendary rather than the bourgeois one of being rich and conventionally famous. But he craved more, hungering to have his art recognized while repeatedly forestalling the event with bristly pride. (His friend the writer Fran Lebowitz remarked at his funeral, “Peter Hujar has hung up on every important photography dealer in the Western world.”) His personal glamour consorts so awkwardly with his artistic discipline that trying to keep both in mind at once can hurt your brain. But the conundrum deﬁnes Hujar’s signiﬁcance at a historic crossroads of high art and low life in the late twentieth century. That period left no image more memorable and subtly—sneakily, even—profound than Hujar’s of the transgender performer and Warhol’s Factory regular Candy Darling, made in 1973, in the hospital bed where she was dying of lymphoma. An inkyblack background sets oﬀ blazingwhite sheets under a banal ﬂuorescentlight ﬁxture. Flowers, including a rose
COURTESY PETER HUJAR ARCHIVE, PACE/MACGILL GALLERY, AND FRAENKEL GALLERY; ABOVE: LEWIS SCOTT
BY PETER SCHJELDAHL
“Christopher Street Pier (2),” from 1976.
Hujar typically spent hours shooting, with a twin-lens reflex camera.“I like people who dare,” he said of his subjects. THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
ostentatiously placed beside Darling like a small partner, lend a frail elegance. But the picture forfends mourning. Head sideways on a pillow and arms vampishly raised, she gazes with exaggerated calm from heavily mascara-shadowed eyes: a death mask, in eﬀect, but one that she selected for the occasion. (Hujar later wrote, of the session, that Darling was “playing every death scene from every movie.”) Thudding frankness fuses with exultant fantasy. The eﬀect epitomizes the practical intimacy with which Hujar, typically through hours of shooting with a twin-lens reﬂex camera (discreetly looking down to view the subject), got beyond what people look like to what— from the depths of themselves, facing out toward the world—they are, conveying, at once, their armor and their vulnerability. But they couldn’t be just anybody. “I like people who dare,” he said. ujar needed no introduction to H the low. He never met his father, who abandoned his mother, a diner waitress, before his birth, in 1934, in Trenton. She left his raising to her Ukrainian-speaking Polish parents in semirural surroundings in Ewing Township, New Jersey, until, when he was eleven, she took him to live with her and a new husband in a one-room apartment in Manhattan. The home wasn’t happy. Hujar moved out at sixteen, at ﬁrst sleeping on the couch of a mentoring English teacher at the School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design): the ﬁne poet, editor, and translator Daisy Aldan, a freespirited lesbian who is portrayed in the earliest of his works in the Morgan show, from 1955. Aldan advised him to seek jobs, however menial, with professional photographers in Manhattan. This set his course for the next ﬁfteen years, as he worked for artists of no special distinction while pursuing his own art and leading an intense social and sex life. In 1967, his brilliance in a master class with Avedon and Marvin Israel led to assignments from Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, and other publications. In 1969, he made his one 62
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
and only political work, for the Gay Liberation Front: a staged scene of ebullient marchers. But commissioned work repelled him, and he began to shun it for a career of shoestring independence. Without a story that is conveyable in a sentence, you can’t be famous in America. Hujar bitterly resented the pearly, opulent “art look” of the style that made a star of Mapplethorpe; and he had to watch from the sidelines as his friend Goldin achieved renown with the narrative power of the pictures that became her chronicle of maverick love and squalor, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” an evolving slide show that appeared as a book in 1986. Those two generated legends and got to be rich and popular, too. In his life, Hujar had few substantial solo shows, attracting little press notice, and only one book, “Portraits in Life and Death” (1976), which unwisely juxtaposed two splendid series: portraits of people in his circle, half of them reclining, and shots of ancient corpses in the Palermo catacombs. “Why not? That’s life,” he joked of the distracting conceit to an interviewer, Henry Post, who supportively observed, “in any case, all the people in the book are supposed to be from the underground.” Sontag opted for solemnity, hazarding in a preface that photography “converts the whole world into a cemetery.” (No, it doesn’t.) The book went over poorly even with some of Hujar’s fans. His one curatorial coup on his own behalf, aided by a performance artist named Sur Rodney (Sur), was a show at Gracie Mansion Gallery, in 1986, of seventy pictures of identical size densely hung in two friezelike rows with an eye to abrupt diﬀerences in subject and form. At the Morgan, the forty shots in a version of the staccato ensemble perfectly represent Hujar’s total investment of himself in one-oﬀ images. Each photograph shoulders aside its neighbors and stops you dead: a glittering nocturnal view of a West Side high-rise above a soulfully trusting Italian donkey, a naked young man and an expanse of unquiet Hudson River waters, William S. Burroughs being typically saturnine and a young man placidly sucking on his own big
toe, a suavely pensive older man and a pair of high heels found amid trash in Newark, a dead seagull on a beach and a Hujar self-portrait. The works have in common less a visual vocabulary than a uniform intensity and practically a smell, as of smoldering electrical wires. Hujar’s is an art that disdains the pursuit of happiness in favor of episodic, hard joys.
friend of Hujar’s, Steve Turtell, A has recalled the photographer saying, “When people talk about me, I want them to be whispering.” The writer and literary intellectual Stephen Koch, to whom Hujar willed his estate, said in a 2013 interview, “One of the keys to his personality, I later ﬁgured out, was that anyone who had been an abused child was automatically on Peter’s A list.” Hermetic appeal and an identiﬁcation with psychic damage came together in Hujar’s last important relationship, with the meteoric younger artist David Wojnarowicz, who was a ravaged hustler when they met at a bar in late 1980 and who died from AIDS in 1992. They were lovers brieﬂy, then buddies and soul mates. Wojnarowicz said that Hujar “was like the parent I never had, like the brother I never had.” In return, he inspired fresh energies in Hujar’s life and late work. In a breathtakingly intimate portrait of Wojnarowicz with a cigarette and tired eyes, from 1981, the young man’s gaze meets that of the camera, with slightly wary—but willing and plainly reciprocated—devotion: love, in a way. Their story could make for a good novel or movie—as it well may, in sketched outline in your mind, while you navigate this aesthetically ﬁerce, historically informative, strangely tender show.
From the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle.
Funny thing is, it was Everett—who was in town to receive the prestigious Professional Football Writers of America’s George S. Halas Award for courage and perseverance during a halftime ceremony—who was doing the applauding, along with 71,194 giddy spectators after watching the Bills dismantle the Seahawks.
Next, he’ll receive the equally prestigious award for fortitude and diligence in the midst of a giddy crowd.
For Amis, style is “intrinsic to perception”; its absence denotes a moral failing.
or poker, watching football or its hooligans. The reporting pieces have a fair share of old chestnuts (the booktour essay) and barrelled ﬁsh (a Republican Convention), but none is without its stinging pleasures: the “little Restoration” eﬀected by Princess Diana’s death, or the corpulence of Las Vegas, where a casino-goer’s huge wheelchaired body “[seeks] the lowest level, like a domestic ﬂood coming down a staircase.” Still, the inclusion of many such pieces points to a completist need that Amis himself once noticed in John Updike. (“It is hard not to be startled by a sixty-word citation to Thornton Wilder.”) A salute to John Travolta’s comeback is resurrected, trailing a new penitential footnote that apologizes for the author’s undue optimism about his subject in 1995, and a very dated piece on the pre-Pornhub porn industry grinds on, further distracting a reader from the book’s heart, which is its literary criticism, labor that allows Amis to realize his most comfortable and integrated self: a novelist engaged in the scrupulous appreciation of others’ style. Closing in on seventy, he has by now spent decades outside Kingsley Amis’s fading shadow, but his literary psychology remains distinctly more ﬁls than père. His deepest considerations and loyalties have all involved literary father ﬁgures. Most of those are now dead, but Amis, having sometimes reviewed their books while they lived, still tends and ponders their achievements through the posthumous appearance of letters or adaptations or previously unpublished works. By my count, adding up what’s in this new collection and three previous ones—“The Moronic Inferno” (1986), “Visiting Mrs. Nabokov” (1993), and “The War Against Cliché” (2001)—there are ﬁve takes on Philip Larkin; seven each on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth; nine apiece on J. G. Ballard and Updike; and ten on Vladimir Nabokov, the most baroque of all the statues in Amis’s personal pantheon. Amis has always wanted to see Nabokov as someone resembling his own critical self—essentially, a “celebrator,” a man whose darkness and
PHOTOGRAPH BY PARI DUKOVIC
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
HOUSE STYLE On Martin Amis, literary critic. BY THOMAS MALLON
artin Amis has in his life genM erally toed what he calls “the Flaubertian line”—the belief that writ-
ers generate their boldest imaginative success by keeping things stable and routine at home. His novels contain little coziness and much mass murder, their daring perhaps leveraged by his own domestic regularity. Amis’s more serious tabloid brushes—over a change of literary agents, in the nineties, and a change in residence, from London to Brooklyn, in 2010—have been widely spaced and personally resented. He ﬁghts an inclination toward grudges (“acrimony pageants”) and, now and then, with weariness or
exasperation, has had to cudgel back against charges of misogyny and, more lately, Islamophobia. (“What I am is an Islamismophobe.”) He remains needlessly concerned about “left-handedness”—the slackening that can happen “when writers of ﬁction turn to discursive prose.” His nonﬁction books now number half as many as his novels, and the connection between both stretches of the shelf is organic and secure. “The Rub of Time” (Knopf ) collects two decades’ worth of Amis’s journalism, including a good deal of what he would call the “ludic” Amis— middle-aged Martin playing tennis
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severities have been overstated. He marvels, for example, at the lambent, kinetic description of a train platform on the ﬁrst page of “King, Queen, Knave,” where Nabokov seems to bless and improve a world engendered by God and man. In earlier essays, Amis took note of Nabokov’s disdain for sympathetic identiﬁcation with ﬁctional characters, and also of his belief that artistic eﬀect was everything, the descriptor more important than the described. Nabokov’s declaration that “for me, ‘style’ is matter” remains almost fearfully thrilling to Amis. When writing about Bellow, whose Napoleon Street in “Herzog” feels to him as nourishing and electric as Nabokov’s railway station, Amis goes so far as to declare that style, being “intrinsic to perception,” is, ﬁnally, “morality.” But Nabokov presents a peculiar moral diﬃculty. In 1987, writing about “The Enchanter,” Amis described “the nympholepsy theme” as being “no more persistent than Nabokov’s interest in doubles, mirrors, chess, paranoia.” By 2009, he is still using the term, but one can feel him struggling toward the concession he makes two years later, when it becomes “the pedophilia theme,” the “only signiﬁcant embarrassment in the Nabokov corpus,” present as it is in six of the nineteen works of ﬁction. There is nothing horriﬁed or rejectionist in the critic’s evolution, but there is a distinct and tentative adjustment of the awed appraisal. Still, the “master’s scandalous fecundity” has left much that’s yet to be published, and Amis’s output of Nabokov ruminations will certainly rise further into double digits. he honoring of style over matT ter also entails putting art above the artist. In “The War Against Cliché,” the larger and entirely literary predecessor of this new miscellany, Amis almost never concedes a legitimacy to critical biography, more often registering disapproval of the enterprise, which he doesn’t see doing much for Jane Austen or Malcolm Lowry or, when Andrew Field is the biographer, for Vladimir Nabokov. John Carey reads the poems of John Donne
“as if they were conﬁdential memos to Donne’s confessor or marriagecounselor, or to some spectral Jacobean psychiatrist.” In “The Rub of Time,” Amis appears to be reading and reviewing the genre a good deal less than before. Despite all this, he has relished what in-the-ﬂesh hours he was able to spend with his literary fathers, and even with their widows. In the new book, he recalls his “only extended meeting with John Updike,” in the late nineteen-eighties, which allowed him to observe “those busy eyes of his, the set of the mouth (as if containing, with diﬃculty, a vast and mysterious euphoria), his turban-shaped hair still forcefully thriving, his hands on the tea tray so much ﬁrmer than my own.” Years after the encounter, with a sort of sad dutifulness, he wrote about a falling oﬀ in felicity that he had noticed in Updike’s late prose. He would not, he says, have published the piece had Updike still been alive, and he scolded his friend Christopher Hitchens for doing such a thing to the aging Bellow. The Updike essay, a delicately brief review of “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories,” is informed by Amis’s own new “urgent interest” in aging—proof, perhaps, that the biographical interpretations of which he remains wary have some relevance to the production of criticism as well as of art. Bellow is the only abiding literary presence able to reduce Amis, amid much shrewd and illuminating study of him, to fanboy gush. Twenty years ago, he concluded a piece by declaring the writer’s ﬁrst name to be “a typo: that ‘a’ should be an ‘o.’ ” When writing about “The Adventures of Augie March,” he insists that “you feel no urge to interpose yourself. Your job is to work your way round to the bits you want to quote. You are a guide in a gallery where the signs say Silence Please.” Indeed, by the time this piece is through, he is pretty much content to present Bellow passages without any profaning context. Bellow and Nabokov do not come to most minds as a literary pair. But for Amis they are united by “the sheer visionary aﬀect of the prose,” a holy duo who have not had
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¥ to admit even Updike into their ranks. Roth is even further from attaining membership. Since the ﬁrst of the seven pieces on him, published in 1974, Amis has been up and down about the novelist, and is still presenting him “equivocally” in “The Rub of Time.” The ambivalence is salutary; Amis’s essay on “The Dying Animal,” from 2001, pulls the reader across deeper waters than some of his less mixed tributes do. The novel’s “intimidating illumination” of the lecherous, aging David Kepesh is too repellent for him fully to embrace, as it seems to be for Roth himself, who, Amis writes, “does not equip Kepesh with moral clarity” but with “rationalizations” and “suﬀering” instead. In 2013, Amis acknowledged that “there are certain motifs that unfailingly ignite Roth’s eloquence,” among them “Israel; aging and mortality; sickness and suﬀering.” But the writer ﬁnally lacks that “sheer visionary aﬀect,” the style-as-morality dazzle to be found on Nabokov’s train platform or along Bellow’s Napoleon Street. That Amis can present “mortality” and “suﬀering” as “motifs,” rather than subjects, is the surest sign of the primacy he gives to style over matter. Because of that dominance, he believes, “achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.” Amis
¥ makes this case in an essay on Larkin, whose evocations of the mildewed and the mingy manage to leave us gloriﬁed by their oft-thoughtbut-ne’er-so-well-expressed exactitude: “Larkin’s life was a pitiful mess of evasion and poltroonery; his work was a triumph. That’s the one to choose if (as he believed) you can’t have both.” Writing about his own novelistic labors, Amis presents a process that “often seems to consist of nothing but decisions,” a self-entrancement during which “busy means fascinated to the point of being incapable of doing anything else.” In “The Rub of Time,” he more than once emphasizes writing’s physicality: “What sends me up to my study is a feeling in the back of my throat—like the desire for my ﬁrst cigarette.” Done properly, writing doesn’t just negate the form-content distinction; it ﬁxes the mind-body problem.
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mis’s eﬀorts toward precision and A freshness—an explicator’s attempt to “make it new” whenever he can—
are everywhere apparent. He may, like most writers, aspire to aphorism (“envy being best understood as empathy gone wrong”), but, by the nature of its brevity, aphorism is evidence-free, and what Amis enjoys most—outside those priestly moments of Bellow recitation—is oﬀering the
“But first, a distraction.” Charles Barsotti, August 19 & 26, 2002
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proof of things: opening up the patient, putting the organs on the table, and taking a poke at the evidence. The critic had better have a bill of particulars, especially if he’s declaring something to be a bill of goods. “The War Against Cliché” fulﬁlled its title through the critic’s weeding and plucking at the language of his subjects, as if he were depilling a sweater. Amis will make even writers whom he on the whole admires stand there and submit to the grooming: Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” suﬀers from “many a reﬂexive cliché (‘moody silence,’ ‘a grip of iron’) and factotum adjective (‘charming,’ ‘pleasant’)”; Angus Wilson is guilty of “scruﬃness,” “the word ‘delicious’ appearing seven times in as many pages, the whole book riddled with repetitions, unintentional rhymes, jangles, even solecisms.” Amis returns to the dangers of staleness and repetition again and again, and there is no cheap irony in that, because none of it is ﬁnally a matter of surface appearance: “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of
the book to its heart. Cliché always does.” It is not even a mere structural issue; like style itself, it’s a moral one: “It occurs to you that Ulysses is about cliché. It is about inherited, readymade formulations, fossilized metaphors—most notably those of IrishCatholicism and anti-Semitism. After all, prejudices are clichés: they are secondhand hatreds.” Larkin, the only poet with a bust in Amis’s prose shrine, lets him down in his letters to Monica Jones, the longtime, long-suﬀering girlfriend who deserved better than the epistolary crumbs she was made to put up with: Larkin’s prose [in the letters to her] is habitually perfunctory and pressureless: “Sun still shining here, but ‘not for long’ I fear”; “Of course, I might have been peevish anyway. More than likely!”; “Sheldon [the new sublibrarian] has started: seems all right, but nothing to write home about”; “Oh dear. I don’t seem to be able to write you the interesting sort of letter I should like to.” “Aren’t I writing badly,” he writes—and quite rightly.
It’s a slapdash cruelty. “The King’s English,” Kingsley
“O.K. Keep him talking.”
Amis’s book on usage, remains one of his son’s favorites, and “The Rub of Time,” like Martin Amis’s other critical collections, is itself something of a style manual, with corrective passages that fall somewhere between patient mini-lectures and readings of the riot act: if you want to avoid repetition without falling into the pseudo-freshnesses of “elegant variation,” then just use pronouns instead of synonyms. Amis will sometimes, in his own quest to innovate and startle, take things to a point where the descriptive phrases or metaphors are so vivid that they reduce the signiﬁcance of what they’re describing: the vehicle crushes the tenor, and brilliance blinds one to aptness. The reader never experiences boredom, even in the seventh Bellow piece or the tenth Nabokov one, but understatement can shout: “Steinberg writes as if he honestly didn’t know anything about the great census-slashing deformity that was about to unfold.” Amis is describing here the mass exterminations of the gulag, a subject that, almost alone among imaginative writers of his generation, he remains admirably preoccupied with. The diﬃculty is not that the phrase “census-slashing deformity” is irreverent but that it’s a distraction, a squawking bird perched on the cenotaph. The style becomes more than the matter. As ﬂaws go, this one is on the order of a Midas touch, an over-blessing. But on a macro scale, in Amis’s ﬁction, the exuberance of the means can similarly capsize the ends: the special eﬀects required by the backward chronology in “Time’s Arrow” (1991) can for pages at a time seem more important than the Holocaust itself. Among his own favorite adjectives, Amis seems to have retired “footling” (four instances in “The War Against Cliché”; none that I can ﬁnd in “The Rub of Time”) but developed a great fondness for “frictionless.” It’s the most slippery of modiﬁers: a compliment when applied to Nabokov’s technical mastery—“his pacing, his modulations, his stage management, his ever-alerting shifts of perspective”—but elsewhere an
insult, something to be paired with “facile” and deployed with the back of the hand. (“Zuckerman Unbound is a frictionless read: indeed, it’s over before you know it.”) In “The Rub of Time,” the word is lobbed with passive aggression into an essay on Jane Austen: “Elizabeth Bennet is the most frictionlessly adorable heroine in the corpus.”The word has its uses— perhaps too many of them. Austen may now be on the tenpound note, but even she has yet to gain admission to Amis’s all-male temple. His appreciation of her skill doesn’t overcome his impatience with the worshippers of her “six samey novels.” In Austen’s case, style has never been enough for Amis, who levels more or less the same charge at her in “The Rub of Time” that he did in “The War Against Cliché”: “ ‘Change’ is the business of satire. Satire is militant irony. Irony is long-suﬀering. It doesn’t incite you to transform society; it strengthens you to tolerate it.” This is a quietism that Austen never went beyond, and that Amis, who says he has “always been pallidly left-of-center,” rather wishes she had. He can exhibit a near-nasty streak in dealing with his correspondents— the new collection includes two samplings called “You Ask the Questions”—but more typically Amis cherishes the most cosmopolitan virtue of all, humor. The critical pieces in this new collection, for all their seriousness of vocation, are full of fast, lighthearted phrasing, such as when he describes Iris Murdoch and John Bayley’s household “commitment to extreme squalor.” The essays recognize that ﬁction, the work of Amis’s right hand, “is comic because life is comic . . . ﬁction, unlike poetry and unlike all the other arts, is a fundamentally rational form.” He approvingly quotes Clive James’s observation that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing.” To be without one is to be without the other, a double lack that would doom a writer to the worst frictionlessness of all— the inability to rub up against human nature, to strike the sparks of awareness and style that here illuminate everything, especially the books in Amis’s ﬁrm grip.
BRIEFLY NOTED Black Tudors, by Miranda Kaufmann (Oneworld). Seeking to overturn the common assumption that there were no black communities in Britain before Caribbean immigration after the Second World War, Kaufmann presents characters such as John Blanke, a trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII, and Reasonable Blackman, a London silk weaver who lost two children in the plague of 1592. Many slaves ﬂed Spanish or Portuguese territories in the New World, boarding ships bound for England after hearing rumors that all men there were free; one helped Sir Francis Drake recruit Africans for attacks on the Spanish. Kaufmann speculates about cultural aspects: three decades after Drake’s ship abandoned a pregnant African woman on an island, Shakespeare created Sycorax, the mother of Caliban. Cræft, by Alexander Langlands (Norton). A pressing ques-
tion lies at the heart of this exploration of pottery-making, yarn-spinning, hedge-pleaching, roof-thatching, plowing with oxen, and other traditional crafts: Was it wise of us to abandon skills honed over millennia? Langlands thinks not, and, drawing on his own crafting experiences, oﬀers both a how-to manual and a challenge to the idea that industrialized production, with its reliance on cheap fossil fuels, is necessarily the way of the future. Arguing that the search for sustainability may make costly, labor-intensive methods newly attractive, he also makes a case for the psychological beneﬁts of working with one’s hands. “Crafts are a vehicle,” he writes, “through which we can be.” Theory of Shadows, by Paolo Maurensig, translated from the
Italian by Anne Milano Appel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The chess champion Alexandre Alekhine was found dead in a hotel room in March, 1946. Although his death was attributed to a heart attack, doubts have lingered, enabling Maurensig to imagine more sinister causes in this enthralling novel. Russian by birth, Alekhine emigrated to France; when France fell to Hitler, he became an agent of the Nazi propaganda machine. With the Nuremberg trials taking place in the background, the novel becomes a tribunal of sorts for Alekhine. “The game of chess was a war that left no prisoners behind,” Alekhine observes. By the novel’s end, he has become one of its casualties. The Safe House, by Christophe Boltanski, translated from the
French by Laura Marris (Chicago). This novel, based on the author’s family history, takes place in a hôtel particulier in Paris. At the center of the story are an extraordinary matriarch—a writer who is paralyzed by polio but refuses any sort of walking aid, and who keeps a ﬁerce grip on her progeny—and her husband, a Jewish doctor who, during the Nazi Occupation, hides for more than twenty months in a room on a landing that the family calls “the in-between.” Moving through the house, room by room, chapter by chapter, the book takes us progressively deeper into a family mythology that is grim and, at times, almost surreal. THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
NEW WORLD The rediscovery of Florence Price. BY ALEX ROSS
Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, Iingnofto2009, St. Anne, Illinois, were preparrenovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet, and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in
1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home. The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price’s papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost. Two of these pieces, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, have recently been recorded by the Albany label: the soloist is Er-Gene Kahng, who is based at the University of Arkansas. The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to ﬁnd. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced
Price’s Second Violin Concerto explores unstable harmonic terrain. 68
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a diﬃcult time making headway in a culture that deﬁned composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause— Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent. The musicologist Douglas Shadle, who has documented the vagaries of Price’s career, describes her reputation as “spectral.” She is widely cited as one of the ﬁrst African-American classical composers to win national attention, and she was unquestionably the ﬁrst black woman to be so recognized. Yet she is mentioned more often than she is heard. Shadle points out that the classical canon is rooted in “conscious selection performed by individuals in positions of power.” Not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.
rice was born in 1887, in Little Rock, P Arkansas, and grew up in a middleclass household. She returned home after attending the New England Conservatory, one of the few conservatories that admitted African-Americans at the time. Her early adulthood was devoted largely to teaching and to raising a family. Life in Arkansas was oppressive; lynchings were routine. In 1927, Price moved with her family to Chicago, where her horizons began to expand. She divorced her husband, who had become abusive, and struck out on her own. Until then, her compositional output had consisted mostly of songs, short pieces, and music for children. She increasingly essayed larger symphonic and concerto forms, ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL ROGERS
winning support from Stock, a conductor of rare broad-mindedness. Beginning in 1931, Price wrote or sketched a total of four symphonies. The First and the Third have been published by A-R Editions, under the scholarly guidance of the late Rae Linda Brown, and recorded by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and the Women’s Philharmonic, respectively. The Second was apparently never ﬁnished; the Fourth, whose score turned up in the St. Anne house, will receive its première by the Fort Smith Symphony, in Arkansas, in May. These works are conservative in style, adhering to the template established by Dvořák in his Ninth Symphony, the unavoidable “New World,” of 1893. Her melodies often follow the modal contour of African-American spirituals, avoiding the outré jazz touches that appear in contemporaneous scores by black and white composers alike. Yet a distinctive sensibility emerges in Price’s pervasively elegant and subtle handling of familiar idioms. In the First Symphony, Price is still ﬁnding her way; the harmonic writing sometimes falls back on nineteenth-century clichés, such as portentous diminished-seventh chords and insistent sequences in the Tchaikovsky manner. But her orchestration is arresting; she has a tendency to contrast tutti passages with spare, luminous writing for winds, showing a special feeling for the bassoon. The slow movement of the First achieves a hypnotic stillness, as the brass section repeatedly unfurls a stately chorale alongside a varied, kaleidoscopic accompaniment that includes African drums and cathedral chimes. The Third Symphony is a bigger, brasher work: a brooding brass opening smacks of Wagner, then begins shifting between Dvořákian hoedowns and hazy wholetone harmonies. The music has a restless, quicksilver air, seldom staying in one mood for long: the almost kooky third movement is made up of a juba dance and a habanera. (On YouTube, there’s a good performance by the Yale Symphony.) Kahng’s new recording of the Violin Concertos, with Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janáček Philharmonic, is Price’s best outing on disk
to date. Kahng plays the solo parts with lustrous tone and glistening facility. A few passages are so obviously indebted to famous Romantic concertos that one suspects Price of putting us on. The accompaniment keeps dancing around the expected, sidestepping into a bluesy progression here, a sultry dissonance there. The second concerto, which Price wrote in 1952, shortly before her death, begins with jarring chords of D major and F minor, establishing unstable harmonic terrain. The hyper-Romantic solo part now seems like a visitor from another world. This terse, beguiling piece has an autumnal quality reminiscent of the ﬁnal works of Richard Strauss. It deserves to be widely heard. he obvious objection that could T be lodged against the modest Florence Price revival—Radio 3, the BBC classical station, will also participate by airing previously unheard Price works during an International Women’s Day broadcast, on March 8th—is that the composer beneﬁts from special pleading. If she were not black and a woman, would she be played? But other hypotheticals could be asked as well. If racism and misogyny had not so profoundly deﬁned European and American culture, would as many white male composers have prospered? Granted, the repertory of older music cannot be drastically reëngineered to reﬂect contemporary values. The idea is not to replace all performances of the “New World” with renditions of Price’s symphonies and concertos. But her pieces warrant more attention than they are receiving now—especially from major orchestras. The same goes for neglected ﬁgures like Amy Beach, whose “Gaelic” Symphony (1896) packs a considerable punch, or William Dawson, whose “Negro Folk Symphony” (1934) is a brilliant, idiosyncratic creation. In progressive musicological circles these days, you hear much talk about the canon and about the bad assumptions that underpin it. Classical music, perhaps more than any other ﬁeld, suﬀers from what the acidulous criticcomposer Virgil Thomson liked to call the “masterpiece cult.” He complained about the idea of an “unbridgeable
chasm between ‘great work’ and the rest of production . . . a distinction as radical as that recognized in theology between the elect and the damned.” The adulation of the master, the genius, the divinely gifted creator all too easily lapses into a cult of the whitemale hero, to whom such traits are almost unthinkingly attached. I feel some ambivalence about the anti-masterpiece line. Having grown up with the notion of musical genius, I am reluctant to let it go entirely. What I value most as a listener is the sense of a singular creative personality coalescing from anonymous sounds. I wonder whether the proﬁle of genius could simply evolve to include a broader range of personalities and faces. But there’s no doubt that the jargon of greatness has become musty, and more than a little toxic. I recently had a social-media exchange with the Harvard-based scholar Anne Shreﬄer, who wrote of instilling diﬀerent values in her classes. She said, “Instead of telling students it’s Great, you can say it’s worth their while: historically fascinating, well crafted, genre bending, or just listen-to-this-amazingmoment-at-the-end. Rather than a religious icon.” If we are going to treat music as a full-ﬂedged art form—and, surprisingly often, we don’t—we need to be open to the bewildering richness of everything that has been written during the past thousand years. To reduce music history to a pageant of masters is, at bottom, lazy. We stick with the known in order to avoid the hard work of exploring the unknown. The anachronisms in Florence Price’s music are, in the end, no ﬂaw. Listening to her, I have the uncanny sense of hearing the symphonies and operas that women and African-Americans were all but barred from writing during the Romantic heyday, when the busts on the piano were being carved. She seems to speak from an imaginary past, from an alternative history of an America that lived up to its stated ideals. Frederick Douglass, in his great speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” said, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” In music, too, we can use the past to build a less imperfect world. THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
GROWING PAINS Kids today, on “The End of the F***ing World” and “Big Mouth.” BY EMILY NUSSBAUM
he ﬁrst person we meet on “The T End of the F *** ing World,” on Netﬂix, is James, a dour, pie-faced
seventeen-year-old who is “pretty sure” he’s a psychopath. At nine, James tells us in voice-over, he stuck his hand into a tub of boiling oil, just to feel something. At ﬁfteen, he brought his neighbor’s cat into the woods. We watch him commit the latest in a series of murders of small animals, whose corpses are arrayed against a bare background, a queasy vision of his inner life. The cat “probably had a name,” James tells us. That intro seems to promise a familiar modern television genre: the comedy so cruel that it doubles as an
endurance test. Instead, “The End of the F ***ing World”—which is written by Charlie Covell, adapted from Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, and directed by Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak—evolves into something much rarer, a convincing teenage romance. At once a joyful watch and a morally destabilizing one, it bears some relationship to “Fleabag,” another dark British comedy driven by the narration of a deeply screwed-up individual, plotted so that its more compassionate themes come as a pleasant shock. Luckily, in an age of TV overkill, the show doesn’t take long to get there: it is only eight episodes long; each is twenty minutes.
On “The End of the F***ing World,” intimacy doesn’t need to be healthy to be genuine. 70
THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
James is played by Alex Lawther, who had the leading role in “Shut Up and Dance,” one of the most disturbing episodes of “Black Mirror,” Charlie Brooker’s digital dystopia. In that episode—this is a major spoiler, and there will be a few more minor ones, so here’s your chance to jump ship— Lawther played another teen-ager, a boy targeted by an Anonymous-esque blackmail ring for having viewed child pornography. In the grand tradition of emasculated actors like Jeremy Davies and Crispin Glover, Lawther played the role in a full-body cringe, his cheeks pink with shame, like a scarecrow on ﬁre. By the ﬁnal sequence, the show had steered the viewer into a set of challenging insights: that a victimizer might be a victim, too, and worthy of pity; that a teen-ager can have the potential for evil and still lack the moral capacity of an adult; and that bad acts and brave ones can coexist without blotting each other out. In “The End of the F***ing World,” Lawther plays a similarly cringing, quaking junior predator, but he is less alone in the world. James’s partner in crime is Alyssa, a classmate, portrayed by Jessica Barden. A mouthy fuckup from a bad family, Alyssa is drawn to James right away: he’s such an aﬀectless blank slate that he seems perfect for an angry girl to scribble on. He also appears to be playing hard to get. But James is objectifying her in a far more sinister way: she’s a potential murder victim larger than a cat. Their early interactions consist of grotesque but hilarious games of erotic give-andtake, as she attacks and he mostly retreats, slipping his knife beneath a decorative pillow. It’s a slasher-ﬂick variation on the sex lives of ordinary teens, during a stage when people often take risks because they don’t know what they want, other than for something major to happen. Before long, James and Alyssa run oﬀ together. And then, quickly, the plot begins to kink. The story doesn’t get any less dark—we’re promised murder and we get it, along with cops, stickups, and the kind of illegal adventures that Alyssa, who sees the pair as society-defying rebels, keeps comparing with American movies— ILLUSTRATION BY ADRIAN TOMINE
but what unfolds is also much more tender than, say, “Natural Born Killers.” The cartoonish po-mo aesthetics—a blood stain that spreads into the shape of a heart, as Brenda Lee sings “I’m Sorry”—let us keep a safe distance from painful material. But the series isn’t fetishistic about the characters. They imagine themselves the way that so many troubled young people do: as both absolute originals and total pieces of shit. Neither is a reliable narrator, although both are sincere. They’re not ﬁnal drafts. The show deserves extra credit for not falling into a few TV traps. It doesn’t score lazy porno kicks oﬀ teen-age couplings, in the tradition of certain shows I could name that are set in Riverdale. It doesn’t make our heroes “Dawson’s Creek”-y sophisticates. And, though it’s certainly a story about an antihero, Alyssa is as complex a character as James is. She’s a brat and a canny rebel, a poser and a naïf, a resister to a world that keeps trying to reduce her to jailbait prey. She’s more than a catalyst for a boy, although she’s that, too. There’s a beautiful moment early on, in a diner, when Alyssa is rude to a waitress for no good reason, ordering a “banana shit.” As matters escalate, a tiny smile cracks James’s face: his grim can’t withstand her gonzo. Not every thread is perfect: a tangent about lesbian cops seems to be missing a step. But the show is paced so well that it doesn’t matter, and, ﬁnally, it has something in common with a movie like “Muriel’s Wedding,” a story in which grotesque characters, living in an even uglier world, ﬁnd ways of
liberating themselves without becoming normal. Intimacy doesn’t need to be healthy to be genuine. he surreal but accurate conceit of T “Big Mouth,” an animated comedy co-created by Nick Kroll, is that the central tween characters are being egged on by a hormone monster, a kind of deranged hype man invisible to the world. Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney) is a neurotic rule follower, but his hormone monster is a fetish-happy freak who moans things like “Fallopian! What a sav-v-vory word.” Jessi ( Jessi Klein) is a smart and grounded girl, but her hormone monster is an ultra-conﬁdent, bubble-bath-scented broad (played with hilarious brass by Maya Rudolph) who demands that Jessi no longer call her mother Mom: “From now on, you call her Shannon!” Nick’s monster is, literally, the ghost of Duke Ellington. The through-line of “Big Mouth,” also on Netﬂix, is puberty in its grottiest manifestations: zits, boners, blood, hair, mood swings, and compulsive masturbation. Initially, this makes it gross enough to be a deal-breaker for many viewers. In the pilot alone, there’s a sleepover jack-oﬀ; an accidental ejaculation during a slow dance; a fantasy sequence in which basketball players turn into graphically drawn penises; and another fantasy sequence, in which some sperm, swimming in a toilet, dreamily remark, “Not to sound gay, but I miss the balls.” And yet, as with “End of the F***ing World,” that initial impression—that it’s guy stuﬀ, test-your-limit, un-P.C. sex
humor—is misleading. By Episode 2, it’s as much about the girls as about the boys. By Episode 7, the plots extend past the characters to their families, in a way that resembles a more manic “Freaks and Geeks.” There’s a smart thread in which Andrew wonders if he’s gay; another about the geeky Missy ( Jenny Slate)’s obsession with pulp romance; and we learn so much about the obnoxiously aggro Jay (a terriﬁc Jason Mantzoukas) that he makes sense as more than a perverted bully. There’s a timely plot about sexual coercion, involving the familiar push-herhead-down move. The show stays disgusting, but it’s also witty, sweet, and aﬀecting. There’s a case to be made for a little rough honesty about a period of life more often portrayed with sanitized “Wonder Years” nostalgia. In one of the best early episodes, Jessi becomes a woman, inconveniently, during a ﬁeld trip to the Statue of Liberty. As she sits, panicked, in the bathroom, the statue suddenly grips her in its enormous green hand and welcomes her to “the covenant of mahn-stroo-ah-tion.”“Being a woman is meesery,” Liberty drawls, in an insane French accent, puﬃng on a cigarette. “Nothing but blood and unwanted bahbies from terrible lahvers.” In desperation, Jessi is forced to stuﬀ her shorts with a 9/11 towel. A Michael Stipefaced tampon sings “Everybody Bleeds.” It is raunchy, caustic stuﬀ. So why, when Jessi goes home to her mom, sobbing, overwhelmed, seeking comfort—and then ends up screaming, from her room, “Get the hell out, Shannon!”—did I tear up, too? Maybe it’s just been that kind of year. And it’s only January.
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THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 5, 2018
CARTOON CAPTION CONTEST
Each week, we provide a cartoon in need of a caption. You, the reader, submit a caption, we choose three finalists, and you vote for your favorite. Caption submissions for this week’s cartoon, by John Klossner, must be received by Sunday, February 4th. The finalists in the January 22nd contest appear below. We will announce the winner, and the finalists in this week’s contest, in the February 26th issue. Anyone age thirteen or older can enter or vote. To do so, and to read the complete rules, visit contest.newyorker.com.
THIS WEEK’S CONTEST
THE WINNING CAPTION
“I thought you said it wouldn’t need much attention.” Peter Gynd, Brooklyn, N.Y. “Keep moving. He’s a hugger.” Tom Varian, Denver, N.C. “This is good peyote.” Brady Goodwin, Redding, Calif.
“My insurance doesn’t cover prehistoric conditions.” Josh Eisenberg, Beaverton, Ore.
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Published on Jan 31, 2018