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Andrew David King

Q&A with Andrew Ridker: The Absurdity of the Facts of Things

Andrew Ridker It’s hard not to see Andrew Ridker’s acerbic, cerebral first novel, The Altruists (319 pages; Viking)—which has attracted attention from NPR and The Times, among others—as an answer to the question of how to think about, let alone write about, a major strain of American life in 2019. The plot centers around a family at once archetypal and painfully real: Arthur, a pedantic, regret-filled professor who finds tenure elusive; his psychotherapist wife, Francine, whose premature death from breast cancer was worsened by Arthur’s cheating on her in the terminal stages of her illness; their daughter, Maggie, a sanctimonious, kleptomaniac tutor; and their son, Ethan, an isolated gay man who squanders his inheritance on luxurious distractions. Years after Francine’s death, Arthur invites his estranged children back to the family home in St. Louis, a gambit driven less by his desire for reconciliation than by the threat of foreclosure on the house that he hopes will function as a haven for him and his lover—an outcome he might avoid if only Maggie and Ethan would put their inheritances toward his cause.

More than a family saga, The Altruists is a story of grief contaminated by manipulation, of spiritual fulfillment and moral aspiration constrained by the material world, of the fire of idealism smothered by the wet blanket of pragmatism. It’s a novel, in other words, rooted in the philosophical issues that have come to define the American left in the second decade of the second millennium. Arthur’s tortured, high-strung demeanor has its origins in a failed humanitarian project that, rather than improving a nation’s quality of life, caused some its citizens to die. Maggie, at once his foil and carbon copy, is similarly, if less consciously, frustrated: her acute moral intuitions roam in search of the sophistication needed to contextualize them and the fortitude needed to put them into practice. The Altruists looks long and hard at the aftermath of loss, just as it looks long and hard at class relations, financial anxiety, and the tensions of globalism, cosmopolitanism, and loneliness. Despite the leadenness of these topics—or maybe because of it—it’s very, very funny. It marks the beginning of what promises to be a rich career.

We met in Ridker’s living room in Iowa City, where he attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, about a week after The Altruists was released. Outside, months of snow had just begun to melt.

ZYZZYVA: Firstly, I should just say that I loved this novel. I thought, the whole time, that it reminded me of everything I like about Gary Shteyngart and writers in that vein. The touches of realistic absurdity here and there—a world where there’s a dating app designed to match people based on their trauma, stuff like that. It’s too real.

Andrew Ridker: It’s almost real. It’ll be real in six months.

Z: And other things like the name of the Dedbroke Performing Arts Center—these on-the-nose but funny intrusions of the absurdity of the facts of things, made explicit parts of the contours of the characters and their world.

AR: “The absurdity of the facts of things” is a good way to put that, I think, because it speaks to this idea of realism versus satire. I think the novel is satirical, but it’s not a satire. If you carefully select enough true details, you get an absurd picture, but it’s not one that’s been falsified or even exaggerated.

worry chartZ: I wanted to ask you about the flow charts, equations, and logical diagrams that illustrate snapshots of the characters’ thinking. They’re funny—and I think effective, insofar as they reveal new things about the psychological states of the characters. How did you figure out how to make that work?

AR: It’s like this Rashomon thing. If six people watch someone slip on the ice, everyone’s going to remember a different aspect of that event. One very empathetic, caring person might say, “Oh, I immediately felt so bad for that person and hoped they were OK.” A more bitter, cynical person might snicker under their breath and say, “He was wearing AirPods, he got what was coming to him.” Everyone’s going to notice something different. I think the things I notice are the funny details that live at the intersection between intention and reality. One of the flow charts in the novel, for instance—that’s a flow chart on the refrigerator in my childhood home. It’s basically a roadmap to calming down during an anxiety attack. It’s well-intentioned but absurd. Of all the ridiculous things pasted up on my childhood fridge, that’s the one that stuck out, you know?

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Donald Trump Reviews Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’

Death doesn't know what to do, he's like, "I've never seen anything like this before."

OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. 

Stars: 10/10

Bergman. You know, people said he wasn’t as good as Dreyer. They said it. They said he couldn’t do it. He did it, though. He really went and did it. I mean, people are worried about death. Capital-D Death. They want answers, they’re dying, they’re not happy. So this guy, big handsome-looking Norwegian guy, European guy, you know, he plays chess with Death. Death doesn’t know what to do, he’s like, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s true, folks. Never before—no one’s ever seen this before. They keep playing, they’re on a beach, it’s great. There’s the black plague, and a smith whose wife runs away with a jester, and everybody’s upset. Then this woman talks to the devil, and she gets everybody all upset. Lots of wailing and whining. They don’t have a clue, they don’t know how to win. OK. They get together and escape in a carriage, and, but, before this the guy with the blonde hair, the real Viking guy, gives away his strategy. He’s trying to cheat Death and Death’s trying to cheat him. There’s lots of philosophy, they eat some strawberries. Near the end some of them get away but this guy, he chokes. He chokes, what can I say? Tries to swipe the pieces off the chessboard, but it’s done, it’s over, kaput. And Death gets them in a castle, he gets them good. And they’re brave. They lost, but they’re brave, and they said some nice things. Anyway, it’s a great movie. They lose but it’s a great movie, just tremendous. I’ve always said it and I’ll say it again: don’t skip Bergman if you can help it. He’s at the top of the heap, better than Fellini, better than Godard, all of those stuffy ballerinas—they’re overrated and everybody knows it. This movie doesn’t have time for any of that. It says, OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. No settling, no recounts. You know, you know you’ve made it when the Muppets are saying how good you are. Lovely people, the Muppets. The Swedes, too. You’ve made it.

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The Work of Love Is Revenge: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’

The Lodger

All images courtesy Pacific Film Archive/Larsen Associates

Considering Alfred Hitchcock’s early movie The Lodger in light of his complete oeuvre—a task that can happen only anachronistically—gives us the old master minus two elements that furnished his films with the trappings of modernity amid an otherworldliness: color and sound. Where scores and palettes might have made reliable signposts, into this silent black-and-white film step in cinematography, action, tone, and shadow, drawing up a London that has more affinities with the cramped darkness of the theater than any brick-and-mortar city. Forced to eschew  [musical?] crescendos—then a fact of the format, but an active exclusion in later films like The Birds—Hitchcock, in his self-declared stylistic debut, stakes out the obsessions that would define his career. They appear regularly and with an absurd reliability; almost everything about the director’s later films that snags viewers, critics, and scholars—sexuality, formality, urbanity, banality, perversion, off-kilter sensibilities, those vertiginous qualities Roland Barthes spoke of as the un-locatable “third meaning” of films—makes an appearance. Each is as interesting for what it says about the man as it does about the libraries of reels he left us, and more so for the way in which each tic is quietly rehearsed and unveiled. Nothing in The Lodger reeks of a checklist; nothing has the comfort of a formula. If, to enlist a dead metaphor, the beginning of a career is the opening of a door, then behind that door stands the film’s title, that ominous figure: his eyes as sharp as his demeanor, his knife-like shadow slicing through the frame, wrapped not just in scarves but in the fog that peels voices from bodies.


Hitchcock didn’t dynamite through a mountain to make the first film he would characterize as his own (“you might almost say,” he told François Truffaut, “that The Lodger was my first picture”—though it was the third film he had directed); he stepped through a tunnel someone else had bored. The Lodger, like so many of his works, is an adaptation of a novel, in this case Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 psychological thriller. For its focus, Belloc Lowndes would look back ten years before she started writing, to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that left a chain of butchered women across London. Even in Hitchcock’s version of her story—and is it really her story, after all?—the sense of repetition is strong, even dizzying, despite his decision to reverse the fate of the  titular character. The film opens with the mechanical heartbeat of industrialization, the programmatic flashing of a sign that reads TO-NIGHT: GOLDEN CURLS, enticing the murderous as much as the lecherous to the vaudeville theater where the naïve Daisy Bunting, the film’s sweetheart, makes a living off her locks. Against a suitably black background, the credits hover, led by an animation of a detective’s silhouetted against a swath of creamy light. What happens next is predictable enough, and after the scream, the objectifying shot of terror on the woman’s face as her life ends, we see the murderer’s cloth-wrapped face as he departs. A ring of citizens and police beleaguers her, none too startled to pass up the opportunity to ogle a corpse. Hitchcock gives us no sense of where these Samaritans were when during the murder; the harsh lamplight slathers everything with a morgue-like quality.

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America’s Westernmost Indie Bookstore: Talk Story on the Garden Isle

Along Hanapepe Road in Hanapepe, Kaua’i—a town as wet as it is green—the storefronts this August morning are still shaded; it’s too early for anyone but tourists. Besides the rare interruption of a passing car, movement is confined to two locations: a cafe selling wraps named after punk bands (and also where someone has scrawled in Sharpie on a bathroom wall “LEVON RIP 4/19/12,” a reference to the late drummer of The Band) and the local bookstore. Talk Story, which derives its name from the Hawaiian slang for casual conversation, establishes its noteworthiness immediately: “THE WESTERN-MOST INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE OF THE UNITED STATES” is spelled out in white paint across its eaves.

If Manifest Destiny was a rowdy, winner-take-all odyssey westward, Talk Story is its antithesis. Behind its barn-like front, replete with a porch, is a river that winds to the Pacific; the red-trimmed structure itself seems as much a fixture of the landscape as the boulevard. Age has something to do with it—the building, originally painted entirely red, was erected by the Yoshiura family in 1925 and served as a grocery store for decades. The gravel parking lot leads straight to the store’s wooden planks, atop which sit rows of bookshelves (some from a now-shuttered Borders), crates of texts by local authors, a stone Buddha, and chunks of wood inscribed with bibliophilic phrases. “Reading takes the mind to places your body cannot go,” declares a block carved with palm trees.

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Ghosts in the Archive: Five Notes on the Asian Art Museum’s ‘Phantoms’

Howie Tsui's "Mount Abundance and the TipToe People # 2" (2010), Chinese pigments, acrylic and ink on mulberry paper 37 inches x 75 inches (courtesy of the artist)


The first thing I see when I enter the Asian Art Museum on opening night of “Phantoms of Asia”—before the scrolls, the photographs, the paintings, and the artifacts—is a sculpture of an upside-down “A” crawling with graffiti.

Who’s the artist? I ask a staff member. Everyone, I’m told. The freestanding letter serves as a meeting point for the museums’ thousands of guests, each of whom can add to the piece. Some sign their names, others draw hearts. Dates and initials on white. From a distance, nothing’s legible; all that comes through is the letter itself. BE A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, wrote one anonymous adviser. Much like the exhibit I’m about to walk into, an exercise in curation that cross-pollinates the past with the present, the sculpture stands as a signpost at an intersection: of strangers, of tourists, people who will touch the same totem only once. There are cursive tags, illustrations. A James Michener quote interrupts the ravelment: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”

The quote would make more sense as I viewed the work of ancient potters alongside contemporary artists whose works crossed the Pacific for these pedestals. Not all of the art in the exhibition is comforting, I learn; much isn’t. And while all put Michener’s aphorism to the test, perhaps the dark showing room of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s 2005 video installation The Class does so most. In the film, she stands before a blackboard on which the word DEATH and some notes have been written. Her audience? Six cadavers sheet-covered on the floor, listening as if the living knew more than they. Later, food and customs and religion aside, I’d watch the people there later: the artists and patrons, suits and dresses, who passed in and out of the room. There, projected on the wall, was their one shared destination.

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Deconstructing the Genius: ‘Picasso: Masterpieces …’ at the de Young Museum

Pablo Picasso's "Massacre in Korea" (1951)

The Picasso of the contemporary American imagination and the Picasso of flesh and blood deserve adequate distinction. Because of his universally accepted greatness, it’s easily taken for granted that the same painter could produce both the glowing anthem-portraits of his Rose Period and jagged political commentary such as “Guernica.” It doesn’t help that Picasso’s reputation is so gargantuan as to be nearly self-propagating—nor that his name has not only earned a requisite mention in every elementary- and high school visual arts class, but become a descriptor, synonymous with excessive artistic ability. All of this results in a numbed appreciation for the man himself: a hallowed agreement on his importance that, counter-intuitively, lets much of his richness fall by the wayside.

But when pieces born of markedly disparate periods of his life find themselves side by side in an exhibition, the anesthetizing fog vanishes. In its place is an awe that such a multifaceted talent ever lived, along with many questions—questions that artistic consensus generally put to rest decades ago, but questions worth asking again. Gone, for sure, is any sense of homogeneity; experiment, instinct, and the process of trial and error stand out instead. In Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, the extensive collection of masterpieces and tangents on display in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the artist’s body of work absconds from whatever pedestal it’s been placed on in the past half-century to pursue a hundred different modes of brilliance. (The show closes on October 10.)

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On the Subject of Truth (with a Captital T): Q&A with Troy Jollimore

Troy Jollimore

In ordinary conversation, the terms “poet” and “philosopher” tend to be applied arbitrarily to people with artistic and intellectual capabilities. But in the case of author and philosophy professor Troy Jollimore, they’re not hyperbolic descriptions but hard facts.

Jollimore rose to literary prominence in 2006 when the National Book Critics Circle named his first book of poems, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, the recipient of one of its annual awards. Since then, his second poetry collection, At Lake Scugog, has appeared, and his poems have been published in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, and other journals. Concerned with both the hypothetical and the actual, the real and the surreal, Jollimore’s work skirts a multiplicity of suggestive meanings. At times lighthearted but never tongue-in-cheek, his pieces often achieve nuance and complexity without sacrificing coherence. Two of his most recent poems, “Death by Landscape” and “Second Wind,” appear in the Fall 2011 issue of ZYZZYVA.

Currently a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico, Jollimore received the university’s Outstanding Professor award for 2009-2010, and, in addition to his poetic projects, has authored philosophical articles and books. His most recent book is his monograph Love’s Vision (Princeton University Press). Today, he continues to publish a number of reviews in periodicals nationwide, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and others.

Recently, he corresponded with ZYZZYVA about his intellectual and artistic processes, the decline of the humanities in higher education, and the notion of truth in poetry and philosophy.

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Approaching the Omega Point: Aron Meynell and Erik Otto at White Walls

"Beached" by Aron Meynell, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches

The work of San Francisco artist Aron Meynell doesn’t immediately command attention. His tones are muted—“somber” is how White Walls gallery owner and curator Justin Giarla put it—and his subject matter that which might be swiftly passed over in the work of a less-skilled artist: trees, animals, the occasional person. But to round down the quietude of these pieces to silence would be an underestimation of their power. Instead of choosing to shock or scream, the carefully constructed landscape studies comprising Meynell’s first solo show hum along almost inaudibly, their worlds not quite plausible but not easily rejected as fantasy.

Framed inside White Walls’ cavernous space on Larkin Street, Meynell’s interpretations of ruin and renewal amplify themselves. With its extensive canvases and clear mastery of the properties of light, the show creates a cathedral-like vacuum within the gallery. The sense of absence is so magnetic that it warps into a sort of presence. And though the overall palette might be slated as post-apocalyptic, each piece in the collection resists sure definitions; at times, the environments are so surreal as to be alien, while at others they’re clearly the remnants of a realm much like our own. Given Meynell’s background, it’s easy to decode the genealogy of his influences: before graduating from the San Francisco Academy of Art, he grew up in Detroit and became fascinated by the structures left in the wake of the Motor City’s once-booming industries.

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Between Possibilities: Stephen Dunn’s ‘Here and Now’

Whenever a poet as preeminent as Stephen Dunn releases a new corpus of material, the potential for failure can’t help but manifest itself. Some might fear that the book, having come from an author who has already attained a pinnacle of critical achievement (Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Different Hours), will turn out to be a footnote compared to the works that preceded it. Still others might stifle an otherwise solid book with narrow expectations or preconceptions. Yet Dunn’s most recent publication, Here and Now (Norton; 112 pages), is anything but stillborn, an object all its own—rather than a repetition of a song everyone has heard before, the collection is a new and surprising symphony altogether, a cornucopia of techniques bearing Dunn’s trademark style and approach. And while they are not innovative in any experimental sense of the term, the poems manage to amplify some less-noticed but integral elements of the writer and professor’s work.

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Poetry and Its Public: One Conversation Within A Long-Running Discussion

David Orr

The debate on poetry’s responsibility, or lack thereof, to an audience is undoubtedly as old as the art itself. Recent movements have taken noted stances on the “for” and “against” poles, from hermetic aesthetic-worship to cries for accessibility. Critic and author David Orr took up the debate via a review of several new books in Poetry’s April issue — and continued the discussion by responding to my Letter to the Editor in the June issue regarding his essay.

Using releases by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Timothy Donnelly, C.D. Wright, and Eleanor Wilner as points of departure, Orr’s original piece, “Public poetry?”, discusses the various challenges, merits, failings, and nuances of the relationship between an author and his or her readers. “All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience,” Orr wrote. He continued: “But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity.”

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The Famous Artist as Art: ‘Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories’

"Gertrude Stein" (1926) by Man Ray

In a 1924 print by Henri Manuel, featured as part of a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Gertrude Stein is at work. Avoiding the camera, she sits dressed in a dark jacket and regal brooch, a pen in one hand; before her, a single sheet of paper glows luminously against the desk. The retrospective show, which examines both the biography and cultural influence of the lauded American-Jewish writer, contains innumerable inventions of both portrayal and homage. Stein, a patron of renowned artists from Picasso to Thorton Wilder and collaborator with musicians such as Virgil Thomson — with whom she wrote the play Four Saints in Three Acts — becomes a creation of art herself, the subject of paintings, photographs, and sculptures, obfuscating the same boundaries between artistic disciplines as she did with her life and work.

Over the course of five sections, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” weaves a narrative that covers everything from Stein’s birth in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and upbringing in Oakland, California, to her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. What emerges is a portrait of an individual who possessed a power singular in the art world, a disposition both feared and revered. Picasso’s 1906 painting of Stein depicts a woman whose ponderousness is tempered by resolve; likewise, American sculptor Jo Davidson’s bronze Buddha-esque evocation of a cross-legged Stein emanates a sense of authority. But the woman at the center of “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” takes on a mythic aura because of her straightforwardness, not despite of it. “When they ask me why I don’t write what I saw, I answer quite simply that of course I write as I saw because I talk exactly as I write,” said Stein in a 1934 video in which she reads from the libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts.

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Ruins of the Real: Inger Christensen’s ‘Light,’ ‘Grass,’ and ‘Letter in April’

Inger Christensen (photo by Rigmor Mydtskov)

Reading the late Inger Christensen’s poetry collections Light, Grass, and Letter In April (New Directions; 148 pages), as translated by Susanna Nied, is akin to stepping into a river of deceptive depth. The long-celebrated Danish poet doesn’t parade with fanfare the complexity of her work. (The first poem in Light is just six lines.) Yet progressing through these poems, a strong, invisible current pulls on the reader with gathering strength. With a plaintive tone easy to underestimate, Christensen allows her algorithmic language to work as a sort of vortex that warps one’s perception of reality.

In Nied’s crystalline translation of three of Christensen’s collections — two of which, Light and Grass, are her earliest, and all of which are appearing in English for the first time — economy and profundity share a seam. Christensen, who died in 2009, possessed a fondness for intricate frameworks in her pieces. “The structure of a work isn’t usually seen as a type of philosophy,” she is quoted as saying in the book’s introduction. “But that’s how I think of it, and I believe it’s been that way for me since my first book was published.”

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