Category Archives: Featured

Teju Cole Delights in Sentence Fragments

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

At The Millions, Steve Paulson interviews Teju Cole about why he left Twitter, his photographic inspirations, how he delights in the beauty of sentence fragments, and his meditative approach to combining text and photography in his book, Blind Spot.

SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.

TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.

SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?

TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.

SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?

TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.

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Will Podcasts and Video Journalism Make Our Syntax Less Rich?

There are many ways in which texts give us pleasure, but none has accumulated more prestige than what some have called syntactical vertigo. When we think of masters of prose, the names that typically jump to the front of the line are the Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Manns, and Marguerite Yourcenars of the world: the writers who could turn a trainwreck of clauses into an unlikely thing of beauty. This might be changing.

In her Nautilus essay on the ever-shifting terrain of English syntax, Julie Sedivy shows how languages become exponentially more complex as societies transition from oral communication to textual transmission. This makes one wonder: if we’re indeed in an age that moves (dare I say, pivots) away from the printed word, will this lead to an inevitable flattening of our syntax?

When children are fed a steady linguistic diet that is rich in complex sentences, these become easier to compute, and in turn, more readily produced under the time pressures imposed by speech. For example, psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children. They found that heavy readers in the 8-12-year-old range produced such structures more often than children who read less. Even among adults, the production of these sentences was highly correlated with how much text they consumed, suggesting that avid readers are far more likely to transmit complex sentences to future generations.

All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?

In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.

These changes may reflect shifts in readers’ experience with language: Where literacy used to be an elite skill commanded by a very few steeped in lives of scholarly study, now it’s a universal basic necessity. More people now read—because they have to—but many probably still consume the vast bulk of their linguistic diet in spoken form and may have little patience for writing that is mentally taxing and reeks of snobbery. The need to make text accessible to a broader population, with a wide range of linguistic experiences, has created some pressure to bring the structures of written English more in line with spoken English.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Monster

Harvey Weinstein, Letty Aronson, Soon-Yi Previn, and Woody Allen attending a screening for "Vicky Christina Barcelona" in 2008. © RTN McBride/MediaPunch/IPX

Claire Dederer‘s essay in The Paris Review on whether and how we can continue to enjoy the art of predatory men is excellent, and challenging, and not quite what you think it’s going to be: that is, it’s great writing. Yes, it’s partly about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein and how their films can be simultaneously genius and tainted:

I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally. When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience. The identification was exacerbated by the seeming powerlessness of his usual on-screen persona: skinny as a kid, short as a kid, confused by an uncaring, incomprehensible world. (Like Chaplin before him.) I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker. In some mad way, I felt he belonged to me. I had always seen him as one of us, the powerless. Post-Soon-Yi, I saw him as a predator.

My response wasn’t logical; it was emotional…

A great work of art brings us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. Youre having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say? Authority says the work shall remain untouched by the life. Authority says biography is fallacy. Authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject. Authority gets snippy about stuff like that. Authority claims it is able to appreciate the work free of biography, of history. Authority sides with the (male) maker, against the audience.

Me, I’m not ahistorical or immune to biography. That’s for the winners of history (men) (so far).

But it’s also about anyone who creates, who is committed to making art and pushing it out into the world. For many artists (particularly those who are women, and or mothers) this requires a level of self-interest and boundary-setting that is usually described as selfish — even a little monstrous:

There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say…

My friend and I had done nothing more monstrous than expecting someone to mind our children while we finished our work. That’s not as bad as rape or even, say, forcing someone to watch while you jerk off into a potted plant. It might sound as though I’m conflating two things—male predators and female finishers—in a troubling way. And I am. Because when women do what needs to be done in order to write or make art, we sometimes feel monstrous. And others are quick to describe us that way.

So at the end, are we allowed to laugh at Annie Hall? Like many of us, Dederer isn’t sure, but her essay adds necessary layers to the conversation, getting us closer to the possibility of a response.

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Ushering My Father to a (Mostly) Good Death

Photo courtesy of Karen Brown

Karen Brown | Longreads | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,613 words)

 

“How about Tuesday?”

My father is propped up on three pillows in bed, talking logistics with my sister and me. We’ve just brought him his Ovaltine and insulin.

“Or would Thursday be better? That’s a couple days after the kids are done with camp.”

“Ok, let’s plan on Thursday.”

My father is scheduling his death. Sort of. He’s deciding when to stop going to dialysis. That starts the bodily clock that will lead to his falling into sleep more and more often, and then into a coma, and eventually nothingness.

He is remarkably sanguine about the prospect, which we’ve all had a long time to consider. A master of the understatement, he promises it’s not a terribly hard decision, to stop treatment and let nature takes its course, “but it is a bit irreversible.”

If I’m honest, he’s ready now to stop dialysis. It’s a brutal routine for someone in his condition, incredibly weak and fragile from living with end-stage pancreatic cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes. It’s painful for him to hold his head and neck up, which he has to do to get to the dialysis center. During the procedure, he must be closely watched so his blood pressure doesn’t plummet.

But he’s always been a generous man. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort in his dying days for the convenience of his family, since we all want to be present at the end. If he pushes his last day of dialysis to Tuesday, then my sister can still go on the California vacation she’d been planning with her family. If he pushes it to Thursday, I can still take the journalism fellowship I’d accepted. It will also give his grandchildren time to finish up their summer jobs and fly down.
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Observe the Bumbler’s One Weakness

“Harassment? That was just flirting! Indecent exposure? My dick just happened to fall out of my pants while she was walking by. I had no idea anyone was upset!” Lest anyone continue to think that predatory men really don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong, Lili Loofbourow’s essay in The Week puts a nail in the coffin of the myth of the male bumbler.

As the accusations of sexual misconduct roiling politics, publishing, and Hollywood continue to stack up, a few things are going to happen. The first stage of a phenomenon like this will always be to characterize the accused men as exceptions, as bad apples. #NotAllMen, the saying goes. But the second is that everyone is going to try to naturalize sexual harassment. If there are this many men doing these things, then surely this is just how men are! that argument will go. There’s a corollary lurking underneath there: They can’t help themselves. They’re bumblers.

That won’t wash. But the only way to guard against it is to shed our weird cultural blindness to manipulative male behavior. We must be smarter than our cultural defaults. We need to shed the exculpatory scripts that have mysteriously enabled all these incompetent bumblers to become rich, successful, and admired even as they maintain that they’re moral infants.

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The Third Life of Richard Miles

Richard Miles at home in Duncanville, Texas, on Sep. 16, 2017. (Laura Buckman)

Shawn Shinneman | Longreads | November 2017 | 23 minutes (5,753 words)

Richard Miles has no preternatural pull toward stuff, but after he received his compensation from the state of Texas for a wrongful conviction, he did make one purchase of minor extravagance: a majestic-looking chess set, which he had installed at the entryway to his Duncanville, Texas, home. This is what greets his guests: a wooden board checkered in alternating shades of stain, fit with a hand-chiseled animal kingdom (a few bishop-giraffes now missing ears), sitting in a floodlit display case. The base of the display is solid wood, painted a soft white and about the size of an oven. Atop that, the board rests on a circular platform, about six inches tall and fitted with a small motor. In theory, it rotates. In actuality, the function remains turned off. When it’s engaged, the board spins too swiftly, and kings and their men veer off and collapse.

To Miles, the game of chess is the game of life: You have to be on the move while thinking ahead. A chess player should be simultaneously offensive and defensive, productive while defending what’s theirs. Miles developed a taste for the game in prison. “It was either checkers, chess, dominoes — or you’re talking about somebody,” he says.

More than a dozen years into Miles’ sentence, he learned the prosecution had been playing cards with a trick deck. He was freed in 2009. Three years later, when he was fully exonerated of the murder and aggravated assault for which he’d been put away, the state of Texas’ apology came in the form of a $1.2 million check. Now come monthly annuity payments totaling $71,000 a year. As of this writing, the state has paid Miles about $1.5 million.

Those numbers, however, tell a slanted tale. Like most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees depart life behind bars for an intimidating new world. Things like completing menial tasks and finding and keeping a job — not to mention the prospects of building a  fulfilling career and life — prove difficult. But unlike most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees often don’t have access to the various re-entry resources that await convicts. That can make the process seem a bit like receiving a good luck slap on the back and a check to take home.

People who have been wrongfully imprisoned experience a unique type of mental fallout. A few years ago, when a dozen Dallas exonerees agreed to check in with a psychiatrist, all 12, including Miles, were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not one was found mentally healthy, and not one has since received serious treatment. Various family members have expressed differing levels of concern about Miles’ state of mind, and his mother’s assessment has been painfully blunt: “A part of him is still dead,” she says one afternoon, “still incarcerated.”

For some of Miles’ exoneree brethren in other states, financial reparations and even the detached sense of regret that accompanies them remain a pipe dream. Texas — Red Texas — has one of the most progressive compensation laws in America, and yet it’s difficult to tell whether the money is spurring mental or emotional recovery. Even a king can topple from a spinning foundation. At different moments, in different lights, the compensation granted to Miles can seem either extraordinarily beneficial or, given the enduring impact of wrongful incarceration, remarkably futile. Read more…

How to Say You Maybe Don’t Want to Be Married Anymore

Good_Studio/Getty

Sarah Bregel | Longreads | November 2017 | 11 minutes (2,671 words)

I am peering out the screen door at the front entrance of my house. Anxious, I glance up and down the tree-lined street and then move to the back door to do the same. The dog follows my every move. I stop and stare at him, circle the dining room table twice, and start over. I’m practically panting, the same as he does when he chases his tail then flops on the carpet from exhaustion.

I’m listening for footsteps, to hear the gate click. I’m waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of my husband jogging up the road, dripping with sweat. For a brief moment I wonder if he has thrown himself into oncoming traffic.

I cannot stop pacing, cannot stop bobbing my head. It is heavy, a block of cement, weighing me down. I cannot eat, but I can drink wine. I have had the better part of a bottle already. I finish my glass, then fill it with water and chug it down three times, preparing for the worst come morning.

Our two small kids are downstairs watching TV. They’ve been planted there like eyes growing on the skins of potatoes for hours, and I have no plans to call to them and demand they shut it off. I can’t look at their faces for fear they might see through me. Later, I will dry my swollen eyes long enough to read bedtime stories and lay with them a while. I will say “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I’ll close the door almost all the way then whisper through the crack, “There’s no bugs,” and slip out.

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Parenting Class Dropout

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Paulette Kamenecka | Longreads | November 2017 | 13 minutes (3,271 words)

 

In the early months of my pregnancy, when practical concerns still floated out on a distant horizon, Matt and I talked endlessly about our first official parental duty: Selecting baby names. We understood that whatever name we chose would plant a flag in the soil of our daughter’s life, binding her to a set of associations that would follow her around for the rest of her days. Matt, Matt, the big fat rat, and Paulette Portolette would strive to choose a name that would be nearly impervious to ridicule and would guarantee our child was well liked by her friends.

We tried family names, like Royal, after Matt’s beloved grandfather and Sophie, after my grandmother. We toyed with Summer or Alabama because they seemed cool. Walking around our apartment, we repeated our favorite names, one after the other, to hear what they sounded like coming out of our mouths. Part of what I enjoyed about this game was that it allowed us to jump past the pregnancy to some point in the future when we were already a family of three.

But just after the six-month mark, things went south. We learned the baby girl I was carrying had a rare, life-threatening heart condition, and suddenly our attention jerked sharply from issues of social ease to survival.

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Unreal Estate: A Reading List About Our Shifting Vision of Home

Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).

There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).

The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.

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In Service of the Slender Man: When Teen Girls Become Murderous

Photo by Julio César Cerletti García (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

To find belonging, teen girls sometimes form obsessive friendships to fend off the isolation that puberty brings at the twilight of their childhood. In this exceptionally well-researched piece at VQR, Alex Mar recalls two real-life events in which teen-girl duos became murderous and why these obsessive friendships devolved into a pact to do evil.

What is occult is synonymous with what is hidden, orphic, veiled—but girls are familiar with that realm. We have the instinct. Girls create their own occult language; it may be one of the first signs of adolescence. This is a language of fantasy, of the desire for things we can’t yet have (we’re too young), of forces we can’t control (loneliness, an unrequited crush, the actions of our family). This invention of a private language, both visual and verbal, shared with only a chosen few, gives shape to our first allegiances; it grants entry into a universe with its own rationale—the warped rationale of fairy tales. Its rules do not bleed over into the realm of the mundane, of parents and teachers and adult consequences.

But in May 2014, the occult universe of two young girls did spill over into the real. And within days of her twelfth birthday, all of Morgan Geyser’s drawings and scribblings—evidence of the world she had built with her new best friend—were confiscated. More than three years later, they are counted among the state’s exhibits in a case of first-degree intentional homicide.

After some time on the swings, Anissa suggests they play hide-and-seek in the suburban woods at the park’s edge. There, just a few feet beyond the tree line, Morgan, on Anissa’s cue, stabs Bella in the chest.

Then she stabs her again, and again, and again—in her arms, in her leg, near her heart. By the time Morgan stops, she has stabbed her nineteen times.

Though they were both a very young, Midwestern twelve, they had been chosen for a dark and unique destiny which none of their junior-high classmates could possibly understand, drawn into the forest in the service of a force much greater and more mysterious than anything in their suburban-American lives. What drew them out there has a name: Slender Man, faceless and pale and impossibly tall. His symbol is the letter X.

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