Staff Picks: Obama, Netflix, and Escorts

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I never expected to like Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World, but it needed only a few minutes of my attention to have me laughing out loud. Though the description might be off-putting—“Bored with killing animals, seventeen-year-old James is busy plotting his first real murder when brash new girl Alyssa catches him off guard at school”—the show is witty and barefaced in the way that a Wes Anderson film could be if Anderson’s films weren’t so masculine. Alyssa and James have a push-pull relationship that left me refreshed at the end of the show’s eight twenty-minute episodes, wondering where the two and a half hours had gone. —Eleanor Pritchett

If you live in the New York City area or are visiting soon, please carve ten minutes out of your day for The New York Earth Room and then, if you have ten more minutes, The Broken Kilometer. These are two strange little rooms, both created by the artist Walter De Maria, both maintained by Dia, both completely free to enter. I won’t (oh god, a pun, why not) soil the surprise of either piece, but I will say that when I visited these two exhibits in quick succession last Sunday, I saw the city open up—almost unfold before my eyes—in ways that it hadn’t for me ever before. What other rooms could be lurking among the tapas restaurants and purveyors of high-end socks? I wondered. What other mysteries does the city hold? —Brian Ransom 

Mohsin Hamid

There is no longer any need for me to tell you that Exit West is a worthwhile read. Barack Obama made me redundant—bless him—when he put the book on his end-of-the-year reading list. Mohsin Hamid’s text is like a perfectly adult connect-the-dots, and Obama, not one to shy from hard work, perhaps appreciated the pencil Hamid hands the reader. The book opens with a sketch of a city “on the brink of war.” Keep following those points, and by page thirty-seven the city could be Istanbul, by forty-two it could be Beirut, by fifty-seven it could be Damascus. Keep reading, and you have drawn a confusing constellation of points that chart their way through extremism, anti-intellectualism, isolationism, hallucinogenics, and the Internet. In the case of Exit West, connections are as terrifying as negative space. Two young people fall in love in a falling city. For safety and stability, only a few months after meeting each other, the couple pretends to be married. Their bond is their only ballast as they leave their city, first for Greece and then the further West. Maybe Obama, a man of intense empathy, appreciated the way Hamid evokes starving in a settlement in Greece. Maybe Obama, a man of nuance and perspective, liked the way Hamid asks other questions of the reader beneath the text such as: What is marriage? And sweetly, provocatively: What is sex? Maybe Obama, as an athletic reader, appreciated how the novel rushed by. The pacing of the book left this reader wide awake past midnight, with ample time to wonder whither our world will go without a reader-in-chief. —Julia Berick

Men at the Golden Globes in 2017

Dayna Tortorici recently published an essay in n+1 about her fear of “an impending male backlash,” a suspicion that the men she knew “had begun to feel persecuted as a class.” “The way they had learned to live in the world ,” she writes, “ no longer fit the time in which they were living.” What these men were discovering, in a moment of societal convulsion, was “the guarantee that some will find the world less comfortable in the process of making it habitable for others.” The piece echoed certain of my own inarticulate apprehensions about the current moment, if only because liberal culture has long trafficked in the notion that patriarchy could in fact be dismantled neatly, and with minimal fuss, like a piece of IKEA furniture. Even those who understood this prospect to be illusive were not immune, at times, to the charms of its logic, to the analgesic allure of a feminism that promised men it had come in peace. Of course, recent events have made clear that it did not, and couldn’t have. “Must history have losers?” asks Tortorici. The evidence points to yes. Although I read the essay some weeks ago, I was reminded of it while watching the Golden Globes: not one of the male winners mentioned the #MeToo or Time’s Up initiatives. Striking though the contrast was, it remains difficult to imagine how far we should expect expressions of solidarity, should they ever occur, to extend beyond the gestural. To ask that a man work for gender equality is to invite him to collaborate, to one degree or another, in his own dethronement. If men are not taught to lose power, as Tortorici writes, what happens when it is taken from them? That our current upheaval is long overdue does not make it any easier to know how to brace for its aftermath: “Combine male fragility with white fragility and the perennial fear of falling,” Tortorici writes, “and you end up with something lethal.” —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

The Song of the Lark, Jules Breton, 1884.

I read My Ántonia for the first time five years ago. I had forgotten many of the novel’s smaller moments, but the openness of the Nebraskan plains and skies that fill Willa Cather’s prose had stuck in my mind. So last weekend, as I wrapped myself in my blanket, looked out at the “bomb cyclone,” and decided against leaving my room, I knew of a sometimes-snowy, more often bright, and always wide-open place I could escape back into. Cather’s novel follows Jim Burden, the narrator, from his childhood on the plains of Nebraska, through his adolescence in town, to his adulthood in the city. Most precious, to a chilly reader, are the golden-lit moments of Jim’s childhood, as he and his friend Ántonia eat melons, read books, and face snakes in the grass. “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins,” Jim says, “and I did not want to be anything more.” That is what I wanted to be, too, while the cold wind blew past my window. Perhaps what makes Cather’s novel most soothing during these winter days is its ultimate return to the full trees, golden light, and open skies of summertime. Jim makes his way back to warmer weather, and so will we. —Claire Benoit

Katherine Faw. Photo: Don Morris

I’ll admit it: Ultraluminous, by Katherine Faw, is a book I enjoyed far more after I’d slipped off the glossy dust jacket. The cover—a photograph of a nearly naked woman’s lower half, her red-painted nails holding a small gun—makes the book seem like a queasy faux-feminist thriller. But when stripped of that image, the book’s fierce sexual power is not so simple a cliché. K, a high-end escort recently returned to New York from Dubai, has a clientele exclusively composed of Wall Street bankers and junk-bond traders. Her contempt for them, and for their belief that their wealth renders them superior, is radiant. There are well-worn tropes—heroine and high-end lingerie—but there is also a portrait of New York City’s decadence rendered in lacerating high definition. In the end, the book is almost less about sex than it is about the ravages of rampant capitalism. The rage is disturbing and propulsive: it’s rare to read female anger rendered so unapologetically. —Nadja Spiegelman

I’ve been ingesting a healthy dose of social realism and British colonial history by reading J. G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip. Part of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy (which includes his Booker Prize–winning The Siege of Krishnapur), Grip centers on a small group of British capitalist elites, but mostly on the Blackett family, whose shipping and rubber enterprises thrive under British rule—which has it fixed in their favor. But it’s the eve of World War II, the locals have already begun to resist, and Communism’s influence is on the rise. Matthew Webb, the estranged son of the recently deceased founding partner of Blackett and Webb, has different ideas when he steps into his father’s vacant position. Yet the younger Webb is paralyzed by his intellectual angst and ridiculed by “proper” men of action. The reader quickly understands that the only thing backward about Singapore is the Blacketts and their lot as they haplessly try to preserve their antiquated lifestyle, businesses, and power. What exactly is the Singapore grip? A rattling cough? A secret handshake? The protagonists of the book don’t seem to know. Their apparent ignorance of this euphemism for a particular sex act hints at why they find themselves friendless and hopeless as war and change inch closer to their door. —Jeffery Gleaves

Installation view of “Fictions” at the Studio Museum. Courtesy of the Studio Museum.

Some things are worth weathering the harsh New York cold, and an exhibition as exciting as “Fictions” at the Studio Museum in Harlem is one of them. Last Saturday, I made my way to 125th Street (conveniently located just off the A, B, C, and D lines), where an enormous show is packed into a small space. The room hums with sharp wit and thoughtful complexity, but it never overwhelms. This is the fifth in an annual series of exhibitions, all put on by the Studio Museum, showcasing nineteen emerging artists of African descent. While the diversity of media, inspiration, and styles is broad, it all weaves together, creating a cohesive experience centered around interrogating the harsh divides between fact and fiction, memory, reality, and imagination. Stephanie Williams’s surreal and unsettling stop-motion piece plays on a television hung next to a bright, effusive painting by Devan Shimoyama (whose work always stuns with luminous pathos). Texas Isaiah’s five photographs are quietly brilliant. They are unassuming on first impression, but to stop with them for a moment is to be enraptured. Genevieve Gaignard’s and Allison Janae Hamilton’s installations are immersive in their own ways; Hamilton presents an eerie scene of a forest and Gaignard a living room adorned with subversively feminine objects. It is exhilarating to see such impactful work from artists who are beginning their careers; I found myself revisiting pieces again and again and thinking about the show for days after I’d left. (NB: The Studio Museum is hosting a full schedule of events over the long weekend to mark the closing of all three of their current exhibitions.) —Lauren Kane

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