This Week in Books: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

Theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy depicted in a Roman mosaic. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

[If you’d like to browse all the books mentioned in the newsletter this week, you can do it on our Bookshop page, because I enjoy lists, especially lists about other lists, so I spent a few hours making one. -DS]

Dear Reader,

On Mother’s Day my mom told me that, still, no one in her office is wearing a mask — not when the employees are alone together. She has a public-facing job at a cemetery; through the clientele, as well, calamity stalks her. Grieving families during an epidemic should arouse our empathy, but there is one family that has done its best to test the limits of my pity: a large family of seven, unmasked, who all at once entered the little cemetery office where my mother works, and grew belligerent when asked to leave, and spoke angrily, and spread pestilence and decay upon her, the woman helping them grieve.

Alone together, the cemetery workers don’t wear masks; they do not wear masks unless customers enter; the customers who enter are often unmasked. The masks come on and off like sock and buskin in a Greek play. When it ends, I will know for sure whether it’s been a tragedy or a comedy.

In these inconstant times, I have been thinking of giving up on all these measured scientific and sociological studies of plague times that I ordered a few weeks ago, and which rest on my desk in a talismanic pile to ward off disease, and instead reading only comedies of suffering; well, I guess all comedy derives from suffering, but I mean the very blackest humor written about the very worst of times. It seems to be the only mood that fits as the virus spreads through the White House and the states “open” and my mother masks and unmasks at the cemetery. I could reread Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, which I’ve mentioned before in the newsletter, although I didn’t mention that it’s funny. (Maybe then it didn’t seem so funny.) I could reread Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. You could read them, too, if you’re in the mood to laugh at something that isn’t funny.

Or if not comedy, then horror. A phrase from a book occurs to me when I think of my mother and the mourners at her cemetery. Or when I see anyone without a mask. In R.W. Chambers’ seminal work of cosmic horror The King in Yellow, four of the stories are interlocking; they each reference a play called The King in Yellow that, rumor has it, drives readers insane when they get to the second act. Only two brief excerpts from the play appear in the book, which makes sense: in the book, the play is banned all over the world, but spreading nonetheless.

The phrase that recurs to me is from this fragment of the play:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

I’m sure you can guess the part that strikes a nerve. But anyway that’s just me. I’m sure we all have one. Some strange little phrase that keeps coming back, again and again, to our growing horror.

1. “Cooking with Giovanni Boccaccio” by Valerie Stivers, The Paris Review

Valerie Stivers prepares a fascinating spread from The Decameron and consults The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? to find out exactly what kind of turning point one could expect a global pandemic to be. “‘The Decameron’ loathes sanctimony, tramples sacred cows, and punishes corruption. It takes elites less seriously and celebrates a cast of characters much more diverse than would previously have been allowed. By observing humanity and the world more realistically, it ushers in a new era of scholarship and reason—the Renaissance, no less.”

2. “Sleight of Hand: On Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’ and ‘Exquisite Cadavers’” by Stephanie Sy-Quia, The Los Angeles Review of Books

A review of two novels by Meena Kandasamy. The first, When I Hit You, “reveal[s] abusive homes as the absurdist performance sets they are: where everyday objects drift loose from their original uses …. where the players know their parts are a matter of life or death”; the second, Exquisite Cadavers, as reviewer Stephanie Sy-Quia writes, is a clever critique of how the first book was received. Reminiscent of Suki Kim’s complaint that her excellent Without You There Is No Us was labeled a memoir rather than a work of journalism, rendering it ineligible for certain journalism prizes, among other concrete consequences, Exquisite Cadavers reacts to the delegitimizing way in which When I Hit You was received as a memoir rather than a novel; “its content was valorized over its form… all too frequently, the fate of women and people of color.”

3. “When James Baldwin Wrote About the Atlanta Child Murders” by Casey Cep, The New Yorker

In light of a new HBO documentary about the Atlanta Child Murders, Casey Cep revisits James Baldwin’s writing on the case, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Cep looks at how the piece came to be (it was no small feat for a black editor at Playboy to lure Baldwin back to the American South) and how prescient, as always, Baldwin’s argument was. He did not believe that the police’s suspect, a young gay black man, was guilty; he wasn’t sure there was a serial killer at work at all. Instead “Baldwin…. used his coverage of the child murders to argue that the crimes were representative of the way that the city and the country still failed to protect black lives. In the eyes of David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’ is ‘to the aftermath of the “civil rights” movement what “The Fire Next Time” had been to its heyday.’”

4. “Making a Mess of the World: On Hao Jingfang’s ‘Vagabonds’” by Virginia L. Conn, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Virginia L. Conn writes that Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds may be the first work of Chinese sci-fi marketed in the West that has incorporated the fact that “Chinese sci-fi” is now being marketed in the West (ever since the runaway success of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem) into its social commentary; the story features “an aggressively communitarian Mars” and an Earth defined by “insularity and possessive intellectual property laws,” and it revolves around the ways in which characters from each world seem to misunderstand the alien world as well as their own. Conn says this bifurcated effect makes Vagabonds a genuinely Sino-Western work of sci-fi, written with both audiences in mind.

5. “Annie Ernaux’s Object Lessons: Braiding Identity Through Time” by Mary Hawthorne, Lit Hub

Mary Hawthorne’s review of Annie Ernaux’s The Years seems a little late out of the gate, since the book was first published in translation several years ago, but I found its reflections on consumerism to be really interesting during this time. Like all of us, I’ve been shocked by the spectacle of some (mostly white seems like?) Americans claiming they have a dire need to consume remarkably trivial things (and to be served, but I think that’s a separate, particularly racialized aspect of this uniquely American madness), a need which feels so urgent to them that they think it must be a human right. Hawthrone writes that, in The Years, a novel about a family’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, consumerism is a mechanism which erases the past and the family members’ connection to one another. “….objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality. [Ernaux] writes: ‘The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.’” Strange to think that being surrounded by their own memories for too long is driving my countrymen insane.


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6. “The Weight of Certain News” by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry

Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour “is a page-turner,” writes André Naffis-Sahely, which is always a promising epithet for a collection of poetry. “‘One-Way Ticket,’ for instance, is prompted by the discovery of a bunch of one-way train tickets inside the speaker’s pocket. At first, the poem focuses on the lyricism inspired by this unexpected find: ‘Oh, all the one-way tickets! / I haven’t found anything / more sorrowful than you / in the pockets of the world.’ But then it concludes with this arresting image: ‘—You pound the windowpanes of this train to no avail. / In vain you hurl your voice to the other side of the window. / We / are the actors in a silent film.’”

7. “‘Unless We Make Some Place’: On Andy Croft’s ‘The Years of Anger: The Life of Randall Swingler’” by Robert Chandler, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Robert Chandler reviews Andy Croft’s The Years of Anger, a biography of Randall Swingler, a British poet who Chandler writes has long been erased from the British canon because of his commitment to communism. Swingler is best remembered for the poetry he wrote as a soldier in WWII. Shortly after the war was over, he wrote:

It is only the bone that is dead. The earth is their flesh
And every year grows green in the sloughing of grief.
All they have lost is fear and the crooked bone.

But in me only the bone is alive, must watch
The slow decay of the will, the inch by inch
Retreat of the nerves, the death by shame.

8. “The Defender of Differences” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books

A lively review of recent books about or featuring Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. It begins, “Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen,” and then the reader discovers, delightfully, that the father of cultural anthropology was more or less ritually scarified all over his face. Because apparently the point of duels was to just slice the other person’s face up. Oh, also he was dueling proto-nazis! (Thought I’d try to end on a positive note this week.)

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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