Staff Picks: Menace, Machines, and Muhammad Ali

Anna Kavan.

Anna Kavan’s short story “Ice Storm” begins in winter, with the narrator leaving Grand Central Terminal to visit friends in Connecticut, to clear her head and make a decision (about what, is left unspecified). They can’t understand why she has chosen to leave her “nice warm Manhattan apartment” for the relentless chill of the country. A similar question: Why would we leave the warmth of a relatively comfortable life to enter fiction like Kavan’s, which is often fraught and frigid? Her masterful lucidity and dispassionate affectation—on display in Machines in the Head, a collection of Kavan’s short fiction, out this week from NYRB Classics—is a journey into the cold to clear your head. Unlike her most popular work, the excellent novel Ice, which skids along planes of disrupted reality, these stories (selected from the span of her writing life) are tighter and more focused. The psychological reality of her characters is rendered sharply: in the title story, the narrator awakens “just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door.” Her narrators are often faceless, unnamed, and ungendered; rather than being alienating, this instead asks you to imagine your way inside. Her narratives are uncanny enough to ultimately forge a safe distance, but her characters familiar enough to make one understand anew what it means to wake up and be unable to fall back asleep, or feel unable to decide one’s future. —Lauren Kane 

Dan Bejar of Destroyer, christened by Pitchfork as “indie rock’s most lovable curmudgeon,” is the only performer for whom I’ve considered becoming a groupie. Sometimes he takes the stage with an acoustic guitar and a set list scrawled on ripped notebook paper; other times, it’s with a tambourine and beer, leading a full band, saxophone and all, in thirteen-minute anthems. Bejar revels in understated theatricality, which is once again in full bloom on his latest album, Have We Met, released in January. On his 2017 record, ken, Bejar joyously embraced the hearty beats of eighties pop, and Have We Met begins in a similar register, though one a bit more electronic in tone (an aesthetic change of which I was initially skeptical). The music here remains steeped in a literary and geographic nostalgia familiar to Bejar’s listeners; his lyrics depict locales of Vancouver past and present, endowing his highly poetic world with a sense of realism. The track “University Hill” is named for Bejar’s childhood neighborhood, though his recollections of the place seem more haunted than anything. He narrates the scene of some grim execution, but the opening lines conjure the memory of a loving mother or a beloved:

And when they come
to round us up
to gather us up
shadow and air
I think of you standing there
lovely in the light.

As one comes to expect from Bejar, it is as unnerving as it is soothing. —Elinor Hitt

 

Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. Photo: Ryan Hafey / Premier Boxing Champions.

 

The old adage “styles make fights” will be put to the test tomorrow night, when the most proficient boxer in the heavyweight division confronts its most powerful puncher, in the most eagerly anticipated rematch of recent decades. Tyson Fury assumes the role of “boxer,” and not since Muhammad Ali has a heavyweight been so light on his feet or so elusive. An exponent of the “sweet science,” he fights according to boxing’s original tenet: hit and don’t get hit. Meanwhile, his opponent—Deontay Wilder, the World Boxing Council champion—has been touted as the fiercest puncher since Mike Tyson, since George Foreman, or perhaps even in the history of the sport. (A record of forty-three fights and forty-one knockouts corroborates this. Of the two challengers who went the distance, the first, Bermane Stiverne, was knocked out in the first round of their rematch. The second opponent to hear the final bell was Fury, and he ended up on the canvas twice in their first fight.) Observers seem to agree: Fury will either win on points, or Wilder will win by knockout. Fury, ever the contrarian, has predicted a knockout in round two. His new trainer—if we are to believe what we have been told—has been helping him to sit down on his shots, and while it is true that Fury isn’t the hardest puncher in the division, nor is he as feather-fisted as his opponents like to make out. Fury stands six-foot-nine and weighs in at (reportedly) somewhere around two hundred seventy pounds; it would be a mistake for Wilder to think he can walk through Fury’s punches. As they say in heavyweight boxing: if you get hit, you stay hit. On the other side of the ledger, it’s worth noting that Wilder isn’t as flawed a boxer as his detractors like to pretend. It is true that he windmills his punches once he’s got his opponents hurt, but he has a hard, effective jab when he chooses to use it, as well as that fearsome right. Far better “technicians” have tried to land clean on Fury and failed, though Wilder did precisely that in the first fight—not once but twice. This isn’t luck. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it in her book On Boxing: “Life is hard in the ring, but, there, you only get what you deserve.” Should Wilder win, it will confirm what he has told us all along: that he truly is the “baddest man on the planet.” Should Fury win, it will cap a remarkable comeback, following, as it does, his much-publicized depression, weight gain, and years away from the ring. There have been rumblings of some vague difficulty in the Fury camp. Let’s hope there is no truth to this, because tomorrow we’ll see a spectacle all too rare in boxing: the best fighting the best. —Robin Jones

In many of Gustave Roud’s (1897–1976) self-portraits, he appears as a shadow pitched against the fields, or cast toward the men who work the land. However, Roud’s subtle presence, and the quiet composition of these photographs, is no preparation for the ecstatic intensity of his writing, now, for the first time, available in English, in a luminous translation by Alexander Dickow and Sean T. Reynolds. In his prose works Air of Solitude and Requiem, Romandy is a place of rapture and reverie, through which he wanders alone in awe, like an exile in Eden. “What have I been doing here for hours on end among the snares of time and absence, laughable summoner of shadows, a shadow myself in the kingdom of my dead,” he wonders. Every scene becomes an unwitting show: the glow of a man’s bare chest in the sun; the song of a cuckoo; the unfurling of a flower. The laborers shape the scene, as Roud, the sole spectator, gazes on at the theater of the seasons, all words “undone like a vain foam.” —Chris Littlewood

Perhaps no other rap album bottles an aesthetic as well as Mobb Deep’s masterpiece The Infamous, which I’ve found my way back to again this week, as I have many times over the course of my life. The second LP from the rapper Prodigy and the MC-producer Havoc plays out in New York’s Queensbridge public-housing development, which in Mobb Deep’s music becomes a kind of perverse snow globe: it is seemingly always winter, not a single soul is to be trusted, and the slightest misstep can get you killed. These stakes are established right from the start; a promise to shoot “in all the shows and even at the hoes” on the first track is underscored almost immediately by “The Infamous Prelude,” a two-minute intermission wherein Prodigy humorlessly affirms that none of his tough talk is empty bluster: “There’s a good chance your ass is gonna get shot, stabbed, or knuckled down—one out of the three.” This unrelenting seriousness, this haze that never lifts, is exactly why I love The Infamous. Prodigy, especially, plays the dead-eyed street nihilist well; he is effortlessly menacing, clicking threats together like Lincoln Logs. On “Shook Ones (Part II),” he taunts his opponents: “I can see it inside your face: you’re in the wrong place / Cowards like you just get their whole body laced up / With bullet holes and such / Speak the wrong words, man, and you will get touched.” The thing about a snow globe, though, is that you can’t escape. There is seemingly no way out for our protagonists, who live one day at a time, dodging corrupt cops, piecing together jobs, and finding relief in substances and revenge: “As long as I send your maggot ass to the essence,” Prodigy raps at one point, “I don’t give a fuck about my presence.” The production throughout the album is appropriately dour: crackling piano loops, unplaceable sirens, and drums that hit like a series of blows to the head. I’ve yet to find a more perfect marriage of beats and rhymes, of gleam and grit, of pure art and utter hopelessness. —Brian Ransom

 

Mobb Deep.

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