At Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles. But when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Systems and Futures Section Editor
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel
Olga Ravn, The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
One of my favorite sub-genres is fantasy fiction about bureaucrats and bureaucratic processes—think Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson or Authority, the magnificent second book of The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer or The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, which elevates elevator inspectors to their literary zenith. Granted, there aren’t all that many books like this, so it’s almost always happenstance that I stumble upon one. Happenstance, that is, until out for burgers with a professor of science fiction and fantasy, a method of expanding a quirky reading list that I would highly recommended.
Thus have the following two books arrived on my nightstand. I have read neither, but am intensely looking forward to both. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, his third and last book, unfinished at the time of his death about (if one can use such a straightforward preposition to describe the thing) the IRS or employees of such or similar in Peoria, Illinois in the mid 1980s. It’s very long. I’ll get back to you in a season or two with a review. The second recommendation, The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, is a smaller book comprised entirely of short interviews with employees including “those who were born, and those who were made. Those who will die, and those who will not” as they explore the attachments and mysteries and daily patterns of life… at work… in a star ship… in the future.
B. R. Cohen
Public Thinker Series Editor
Dana Stevens, Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century
I didn’t know I needed this book. I wanted a summer read that wouldn’t be academic and wouldn’t make me think I was vetting class material as I sat on the porch and placidly thumbed page by page during a morning hour. I know who Keaton is; I’ve seen a few of his movies; I’ve watched some on YouTube. But I’m no film scholar (Sharon Marcus will handle that for you) and I couldn’t tell you anything else about him. Stevens’s Camera Man is not only a breezy read—which I mean as a compliment—but sneakily deft and entirely thoughtful. She uses Keaton’s biography as the vehicle to drive through film history, business history, questions of comedy, cinema, race, sexism, and shifting cultural mores. It was so fun, I accidentally ended up vetting it to use in a future history of technology class and will now talk to everyone about Keaton as if I always knew.
TV Section Editor
Chris Belcher, Pretty Baby
Pretty Baby tells a story, but it’s not a linear one. Yes, this debut memoir—by writer, professor, and former sex worker Chris Belcher—traces a riveting narrative arc from its author’s queer adolescence in Appalachia to her often contradictory experiences as a queer studies scholar and professional lesbian dominatrix in Los Angeles. But Belcher’s inquisitiveness and vulnerability persist, or rather insist, even as her protagonist matures. Her tale is thus a cascade of openings. Informed by queer theory yet skeptical of academic discourse’s relevance to sex, work, and sex work, Pretty Baby leaves the grad seminar for the dungeon, where BDSM scenes both reveal the workings of gender and power and provoke new questions about them. “[H]umiliation and degradation are different in scale,” Belcher observes, nuancing Eve Sedgwick’s important work on shame. Yet this reflection unfolds against the backdrop of the narrator’s gnawing fear that “I would be fired from my day job if anyone ever found out about my night job.” In Pretty Baby, theory is indissociable from practice and the abstract cleaves to the concrete. This beautiful first book is as real as they come.
B-Sides Series Editor
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated from the German by John E. Woods
As a title, The Magic Mountain seems straightforward enough: the novel is set in a tuberculosis asylum (Davos, for those keeping score at home) where the afflicted of fin de siecle Europe (the novel takes place between 1905 and 1914) seek fresh dry air to rescue them from the turgid miasma below. The magic lies in escaping dreary reality below.
However, nothing in the novel is straightforward: the first irony is that even the healthy become sick as they linger there. Example one is our protagonist, young Hans Castorp, who’s having a very millennial quarter-life crisis and can’t bring himself to descend from the mountain to join the “healthy life” that awaits him.
The second and deeper irony only occurs to readers after they’ve spent enough time with the other exiles: the Garibaldian idealist Settembrini, the brooding Jewish Jesuit Naptha, and perhaps most of all, Hans’ doomed cousin Joachim, who wants nothing more than to descend the mountain and take up his army commission (the bildung he dreams of, fated always to elude him, lies in martial slaughter). It gradually dawns on readers that far from being an interlude, an ascent above chthonic Europe, this magic mountain is simply its eerie, condensed doppelganger. The death that awaits these TB sufferers is not merely a byway, it is the fate of the whole damned continent. The mountain is magic because those tubercular lungs are a microcosm, a frozen section even, of what awaits the European body politic between 1914 and 1918.
Why read this morbid 1924 portrait of pre-Great War Europe in 2022? If you’re an optimist, you can tell yourself that the consolation of great art is that it lets us pity long-dead sufferers while sleeping in our own cozy, TB-free beds. Pessimists and realists, though, will sense resonance between Mann’s portrait of the early 20th century and the ethno-nationalism and mindless sectarianism that haunt the world today. That’s the final bit of magic on this mountain. Mann is not only writing about the misery of his continent in his own day, he’s also drawn an eerie bead on the sorrows of the here and now. Asylums offer no asylum.
Public Streets Series Editor
Pamela Dean, Tam Lin
Tam Lin retells the eponymous Scottish ballad as a campus novel. (Yes, you read that right.) This genre-bending book focuses on Janet Carter, an English major at (fictional) Blackstock College, as she explores her love for the canon and discovers the delights of sex. The students take literature seriously: the banter about Hamlet and Homer is witty, sophisticated, and punctuated by quotations from memory. More mundane concerns, like how not to get pregnant, are equally present to mind: the campus is haunted (literally) by the ghost of a young woman who killed herself in the late nineteenth century in despair over an unwanted pregnancy. But it’s the 1970s, and Janet knows how lucky she is to have options. “You are the beloved daughter of tolerant parents,” she thinks, “living in a society that has just declared it’s none of the government’s business if a woman has an abortion in the first trimester.” Tam Lin is a book about the timelessness of literature that often feels dated. But, paradoxically, what makes it most dated of all—Janet’s confidence in her sexual agency, as protected by the legal right to abortion—also makes it resonate with particular urgency today.
Quizzical & Shoptalk Series Editor
Gabe Montesanti, Brace For Impact
Gabe Montesanti’s Brace For Impact is a queer coming-of-age memoir oriented around the campy, thrilling sport of roller derby. Revived in the early 2000s from its wrestling-esque-past, derby is now a full-contact sport governed by rules and played competitively around the globe. Derby is grounding for Gabe—who is known on the track as Joan of Spark—as she navigates how to be at home in her self, body, family, relationship, and community. A testament to queer kinship, badassery, and the power and politics of taking up space, this text should inspire all to support their local roller derby—find your local league here!