“This place is not haunted,” a character insists early in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film Neighboring Sounds, trying to deny a discount on a luxury apartment to a potential buyer who heard the previous occupant committed suicide. That particular ghost might not exist, but there are plenty of others in the movie: dead parents, bulldozed buildings, and a mysterious sprite who seems to have followed a family from the sugar plantation they own in the country to the street they’re developing in Recife, Brazil. The movie is a totally absorbing look at an urban infrastructure of paranoia, from the architecture of the new developments to the sounds that keep residents up at night. The characters live under a racial capitalism just slightly distinct from America’s — different enough that we notice it at work, similar enough that we recognize it for what it is.
Back in the slow days of dial up, when GeoCities or Angelfire were the main way to leave an imprint on the internet, a certain kind of website proliferated — the overly complicated, graphic-jammed, animation-obsessed website of a person just thrilled to be making a website. When I found the artist Dayday Key’s site, I felt an old thrill rekindled. Scrolling both down and sideways, his animated fonts and neon cats spin across a cluttered, almost maddening crush. No design rule has been left unbroken and there are no social media links, no hire me page, no plea to join a Patreon. Deadpan poems in English and Chinese are there though, why not, and a guest book, and an old fashioned visitor counter. This is a place far from the sludge river of social media, a place unaffiliated with the boring, business-card-like personal pages I’ve seen elsewhere. Through Dayday Key’s world I’m able to remember a simpler, nerdier, less monetized era for the World Wide Web.
Disney and the moralists of the 19th century really ruined fairy tales for us, with all the princesses and happily ever afters. But if by fairy tales we mean the vernacular folk tales, from any region, of the mundane turned miraculous, all the world we cannot see — these are worth loving. The point isn’t the happy ending: It’s to enter the forest. Your arm might be turned to glass and your lover might become a bear, your heart might be frozen until you cry only ice, you might wander for 17 years alone, knives might slash your feet into bloodied ribbons when you walk. The point is that fairy tales give us stories to narrate the transformation and pains of living, to get through the forest, somehow. Try Philip Pullman’s version of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, or The Djinn and the Nightingale by A. S. Byatt.
About Suffering They Were Never Wrong
For me, it has been old poets who have captured the tumult of our current world. In 1979, the Marxist Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz penned defiant lines against the dictator General Zia ul-Haq. “Hum mehkumon ke paon tale, Jab dharti dhad-dhad dhadkegi…Hum dekhenge” — “Beneath the feet of the oppressed, when earth like heartbeat will be shaken…We will see.” Iqbal Bano, one of the country’s most popular singers, set the poem to melody, and 34 years later her rendition rang out at anti-government protests across India, including at Shaheen Bagh, a women-led sit-in in Delhi. As the pandemic drew on in the U.S., as food lines grew longer, and as refusals to wear masks intensified, I turned to W.H. Auden, especially “Musée des Beaux Arts” and, in particular, “September 1, 1939”: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police We must love one another or die.
I met Cindy, who is around my parent’s age, as a walk-in customer three years ago at a salon in Chinatown in New York. As she moved joints (to Decode Salon) I became a Cindy loyalist. Why? Well, here are just a few of Cindy’s thoughts on my hair: After I tried to explain balayage to her in Mandarin over the phone: “No.” After I asked if she liked my hair better when it was short or long: “I don’t care.” After she thought about it for a few more seconds: “When it’s short, it’s fashion. When it’s long, it’s putong” (basic). After I put my tea on the floor: “Don’t put your tea on the floor.”
Watching my neighbors go about their lives from a safe and secret distance has been a way to reconnect to the IRL feed, and a heartier, more sustaining voyeurism. Surveying nearby windows and back lots, backyards and rooftops, I’ve felt at turns curious, annoyed, sad, more alive, and a little less alone. This may be small consolation in our time of distancing (after the initial gasp, nudity overseen is rarely as exciting as imagined). But the tension between longing to be seen and the terror of being seen is fundamental, and spying on one’s neighbors can offer a needed dose of stranger-intimacy, a welcome jolt of the illicit, at a time when both may feel elusive. So often we assume that we’re the only ones looking.
All The Better To Eat You With
Bored with most American fiction? Try visualizing your boredom as an insatiable monster stalking towards you, ready to devour you whole. Then pick up Beth Morgan’s new book, A Touch of Jen. There is no twist in this novel you will expect. What starts as millenial social-media satire turns into a class-conscious cautionary tale, then hints at horror, then dwells on the ugliest of feelings — obsession, shock, grief — until those feelings materialize in monster form, stalking the characters as assiduously as they track each other’s Instagram content. After all, plot is just content, ready to be eaten up.
Sadness can be opaque, but it sometimes announces itself with dumb clarity. I experienced the pandemic as a combination of ambient despair and very specific concern. The future is frightening and uncertain. Also: My mother is a nurse in New York City. In these hybrid moments, I found myself laying on my back, listening to the same mellow playlist. In heavy rotation: Chubby Checker’s plaintive song “If the Sun Stopped Shining.” He sings sweetly of the concrete and undeniable: “If the sun stopped shining, there’ll be no life for me.” Then, the heady: “If the sun stopped shining, there’ll be no love for me.” It’s a glimpse of the end of the world, and the smaller apocalypse of loneliness. Both annihilating, survival of each requiring the same acceptance of contingency, vulnerability, interdependence.
Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep is a course in living vicariously. In the hours beyond midnight but before the morning, Maggie Cheung — playing herself, a famous actress — is tip-toeing through the halls of a fancy hotel, sporting a skin-tight latex suit like a caricature of a sexy robber. Is she on something? Maybe she’s just testing her boundaries. She sneaks into the room of another guest who is arguing on the phone completely naked and, undetected, grabs a necklace within close range. The rush of taking something both expensive and meaningless (to her) sends her on an espionage-movie-style sprint up to the roof of the hotel. In the pouring rain, she mimics the rooftop stunts she’d watched on set all day and with the same impulsive energy with which she snatched the necklace, she throws it away.
Dinner’s on Me
I’ve recently become obsessed with the concept of the apology dinner. It originated with a poster in the popular “Am I the Asshole?” subreddit, who described it thus: “It’s a dinner initiated by one party for the purpose of apologizing to another party,” with friends and family there to mediate. The internet roundly mocked the idea, with thousands claiming this would make for a horrible dinner. I couldn’t disagree more. Why not turn a disagreement into a communal meal? Spaces in which we can air our grievances, admit the damage we’ve caused, and make amends without suffering harsh retribution are far too rare. Some commenters argued that apologies ought to be private, but, as the original poster explained, having family, friends, or neighbors there to mediate increases the chance of sincerity and honesty. I can think of people to whom I want to apologize for something. Why not make a whole evening of it, invite friends, and serve a nice meal?
Remember blogs — the ones that, instead of aspiring to sell ads or launch a career, were a soapbox for people with interesting ideas and a little spare time? Economist Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality (glineq.blogspot.com) is still kicking around. I started reading it in 2014 for his reliably informative and entertaining commentary on economics; I stayed for his takes on literature, society, and the state of the world. In a recent post, he asks, “Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist?” Given our collectively housebound existence, it feels dreadfully apropos.
All Hail, Queen of Insta
Christine and the Queens — the stage name of the French gender outlaw Héloïse Letissier — dropped her latest EP, “La Vita Nuova,” just as stay-at-home orders in the U.S. put us all in the mood of its breakout hit, “People, I’ve Been Sad.” Then, the Paris lockdown pushed her to Instagram, where a digital audience could soak up her improv dance videos, filtered selfies, and emo prose poems. Mostly filmed or photographed in her bedroom, her videos and photos don’t have the gloss of “content” produced by a PR team. Instead, Letissier radiates freaky confidence and comfort with expressing emotions earnestly.
The hottest new club on the Left is Twitch, and it’s got everything: live streaming of BLM marches, AOC playing “Among Us,” Hasan Piker looking like Hasan Piker. Twitch tends to be associated with gamer culture, but it’s quickly becoming one of the most interesting places to have political conversations with zoomers. The children are our future — and they’re all on Twitch.
Join The Hval Hive
Jenny Hval’s novel Girls Against God follows a young Norwegian woman with typical adolescent preoccupations: blasphemy, black metal, starting a band. She spends her school years cultivating her hatred of all things white, from supremacy to porridge. As with Hval’s previous novel, Paradise Rot, her protagonist is searching for a way to dissolve bodily boundaries and merge with her comrades. “Blasphemy looks for new ways of saying we,” Hval writes. The narrator’s band naturally becomes a coven, and their gigs become rituals performed to shock conservative Christian Southern Norway out of its white stupor. Girls Against God is a messy commune, against purity and for perversity: If you own a T-shirt that says “We are the daughters of the witches you didn’t burn” but have never rubbed henbane on your junk and gone flying with your girlfriends, this book is too metal for you. But if you learned to masturbate from reading Story of the Eye and felt that Clarice Lispector didn’t go far enough with The Passion According to G.H., then you’ll feel right at home in the Hval hive.
The tiny naked woman atop the twisted mass of silvered bronze isn’t supposed to be Mary Wollstonecraft, regarded as the mother of feminism. The recently unveiled statue by the controversial British sculptor Maggi Hambling is “for” her, not “of” her. You can forgive gawkers for missing the point. Critics lament over why the first-ever Wollstonecraft memorial features a Barbie-like figure with ripped abs and detailed pubic hair; defenders counter that she’s an everywoman symbol emerging from a swirl of female forms. At first I found the statue hideous and the drama around it hilarious. But after a few visits, I changed my mind. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed so much real-time debate and discussion over a work of art, from the tiny knitted vests thrown over her in the dead of night to the signs of protest and support laid at her feet. Besides, would Wollstonecraft really have preferred to have been immortalized in traditional garb (clothed, for starters) or posing staidly to mirror her male counterparts?
Email Noam Chomsky, and he will reply. Rumor has it that he spends hours a day just reading and responding to emails from people all over the world. Comrade Chomsky replies to our emails not out of obligation, but because:
It’s a privilege, really. These are the important people in the world. I remember a wonderful comment by Howard Zinn about the countless number of unknown people who are the driving force in history and progress. … These are people that deserve respect, encouragement, the hope for the future. They’re an inspiration for me personally.Hilariously enough, this magnaminity has gotten him mixed up in several trivial controversies, like signing an open letter on free speech and some bizarre Twitter squabbles. But it’s also brought countless restless minds a measure of joy and intellectual stimulation. So go ahead and hit “Send.” The worst case scenario is you will end his streak of replying, but most likely, you’ll rest easy knowing that Noam Chomsky recognizes you, values you, and finds you worthy of his time and attention.
They’re Callin’ Again
There’s almost nothing I should like about “Frasier.” It’s a show about rich liberals who scheme for approval from elitist cliques and institutions, yet I find myself totally absorbed, averaging two episodes nightly. It’s soothing because its bourgeois conflicts have ludicrously low stakes: a dinner party goes awry, a goat-hair sweater is stretched, an opera is sold out. It’s a window into an obsession with rank and luxury — and its eventual backfire. With clever wordplay and warm, upscale interiors, “Frasier” is a perfect bedtime binge.
Our Gardens, Ourselves
A pack of rats mowed down most of my vegetable beds this fall in a setback for my pandemic-induced desire to feed my family and neighbors. Reading the novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s old New Yorker columns on gardening, however, has restored the solace I found in seedlings. A garden is not, she insists, “a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility that comes with being a human being;” in these essays, mostly from the ’90s, she covers colonialism, slavery, climate, hallucinogens, and class, along with the emotional landscape of gardening: satisfaction, despair, capriciousness, covetousness. This year I wait, as she once did, for spring to come, and to “welcome it with such joy, as if I had never welcomed it before.”
Live free or die hard
The Art of Joy is a novel about how to live free. It is also a psychosexual drama, a tale of getting away with murder(s), and a paean to anti-authoritarianism, historical materialism, and sprawling blended families. The book was written in the ’70s by the Italian actress, novelist, and socialist resistance fighter Goliarda Sapienza. The protagonist is Modesta, or Mody, who starts off amid poverty and trauma (try to make it through the jarring first section) and claws her way toward the light.
If you’re a bird, I’m a bird
During the pandemic, I joined a surge of new birders looking for a way to escape their tiny apartments and enjoy the outdoors. What I found was a diverse, queer, radical community of birders that wanted to help nurture my love of the natural world. The Feminist Bird Club was founded in New York City but now has eight chapters in the U.S. and two internationally. I found myself taking birds walks with their members and participating in debates about renaming birds named after racists. Birding offers a form of active meditation and helps build a healthy appreciation for the many species that call your neighborhood home. It is not just for that uncle of yours who wears cargo shorts. So grab a pair of binoculars and meet your local birding community. While looking for that elusive red crossbill you may find yourself talking about rank-and-file unionism or your experience coming out, or both.
“she’s single & worth over 109mil lbs?” “When I used to fish in Michigan and I’d listen to Enya, I would almost always catch a fish. Very strange.” “I kind of want her to peg me.” These are all comments posted under Enya videos on YouTube, collected by the Twitter account @EnyaComments. But Enya is just a conduit: This is a timeline about shy wonderment and pleasure, and overcoming pain. Did you know music could make you feel sublimity in your nail beds? The Enya commentary doesn’t confine itself to woo-woo wonder. It expresses shock that Gaelic is a language; calls for Irish nationalism; longs for loved ones and for an escape from the crushing disappointment of life. Above all, the account provides the same deep satisfaction as reading Quora answers or eBay descriptions: Sublimating yourself into parts of the internet where the water is tepid.