Author Archives: JSE

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

I was struck by the fact that this book was getting a huge amount of press, and I was clearly supposed to have heard of the author, Sally Rooney, but I had not. And when I asked people about this, I was told it was generational. Rooney is “a millennial author” and I am not a millennial reader. I took this as a challenge! Can I read millennially?

Here are some thoughts which I suppose contain plot spoilers if you are the sort of reader who wants to avoid those before reading the books. (I am.)

What I really like about the book is its strange and affecting choice to use a narrative voice which can go anywhere and see anything but cannot enter any of the main characters’ minds. Everything is done through dialogue and description of bodily motion. The narrator never speaks in the first person but somehow has a personality, is a kind of lonely spirit, which sometimes wanders away from the narrative action entirely and goes out into the night, while the characters keep talking inside the cozy, lighted house, where the narrator can no longer hear. (The only other recent book I can think of that does something like this is is J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, but the purpose there is pretty different; that one is really going for, and achieving, outright spookiness.)

This choice is the central stylistic fact of the novel and every moment gets colored by it, as in a novel written in the second person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, for instance, and the fact that we are locked out of the human experience of it, just watching bodies roll over each other, makes it uncomfortable to read — frankly, kind of porny. By design, since the characters themselves are not really able to experience each other as people, even though at moments they think they’re so doing.

The story is broken up by emails from one character to another — in a normal novel these could be simply changes of register, a comfortable way to vary the style and bring in information about the characters without cramming it artificially into dialogue or reminiscence. But here, because we’ve been locked out of the characters’ minds, the artificiality of the form comes to the fore. We don’t experience the emails as direct contact with the character’s beliefs, but as performances, which is of course what letters actually are. And so the little philosophical essays that might otherwise be read as authorial thesis statements by proxy are, here, more like — what, affectations? Things the characters wear, like clothes, from which observers can tell what kind of people they are asserting themselves to be.

About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative breaks the rule and goes into Eileen’s mind for a reminiscence of her early romantic feeling for Simon, the man we’re watching her present-day romance with. (Simon is also Jesus, sort of.) I’m not sure why Rooney does this. In fact the book, which sets itself up very satisfyingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do once it has established its mood of eerie distance. The last part of the novel — back to the distant narrator, at this point — contains a lot of long monologues which feel purposeless and lack the snap of the very, very good renderings of speech earlier on. To be honest I had the feeling Rooney was tired of moving the characters around on the board and knows that in novels people traditionally settle down together in the end so that’s what happens. But this very assured and unconventional book doesn’t like having a conventional ending. On some level I think Rooney recognizes this, so puts the ending in a pair of letters rather than try to narrate it.

This sounds like I didn’t like it, but I did like it. Rooney set herself a difficult task and didn’t, it seems to me, bring it off; but most books don’t even try anything hard.

Some other people writing on this book:

Tony Tulathimutte in the Nation, who makes some correct criticisms of some of the sentences in the book;

Anne Enright in the Guardian, who is very good on the strange power of the novel’s style, and who is completely won over by the ending that left me so unsatisfied.

Update: There is another read here, which is that I’m overthinking it and this is meant to be the sort of novel in which you feel about the characters the way you might about people you know, and just straightforwardly hope for certain outcomes for them, the way one does (I mean, I do) in The Age of Innocence or Elena Ferrante novels (I mean, the ones I’ve read.) If that’s the work the book is doing, it didn’t work for me (but I think it worked for others, like Anne Enright.)

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Wildlife removal

Something — a rabbit, it turned out — died underneath my porch. We could smell it but we couldn’t see it. Some people wouldn’t mind handling this themselves, but none of those people are me, so I called AAAC Wildlife Removal. The guy got out of his truck, sniffed around the porch, looked me right in the eye and said, “You never get used to the smell of death.” That alone was worth the price.

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A farewell to Tab

Another part of my childhood gone: I learned today that Coca-Cola discontinued Tab at the end of last year. This is middle age, to feel a loose kind of sorrow at the demise of things you didn’t even like.

Dredging as good government

A few summers ago we had really bad floods in Madison. There were a lot of reasons. The proximate reason was it rained a lot. But also: we keep the levels of the lakes artificially high with dams, in part because not doing so would make the lake levels fluctuate a lot, and that is a problem for people who have houses on the lake. It’s hard to have your dock reliably terminate at the shoreline if the shoreline keeps moving. Another problem is that the waterways joining the lakes in the chain are choked with sediment and vegetation — so even when we DO open the dams and let the water flow southward towards the Rock River and eventually the Mississippi, the water is pretty slow to drain and it eventually overtops Lake Mendota and washes into the streets of downtown.

(Which, by the way, it was 10 years I lived in the Upper Midwest before I realized that Rockford, Illinois was a place where you could ford the Rock.)

Anyway, I was happy to see that the county is spending a few million dollars to dredge those connecting waterways so the lakes can drain more easily. This is not a headline-making move or an internet sensation; as far as I can tell, the number of times this effort has been mentioned on Twitter is in the single digits. And the effect won’t be dramatic — there’s no shiny new building or bridge or factory at the end of the expenditure. The effect is on what doesn’t happen, or at least is less likely to happen: another flood causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

We pay pretty high property taxes in Madison, as things go, but what’s good about our local government is that I truly feel a lot of this kind of thing happens here. We fix things before they break. It’s something governments mostly don’t get credit for. But they should.

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One thing about The White Lotus

This was a good television show, made by Mike White, who wrote three episodes of Freaks and Geeks as well as running the excellent and little watched Laura Dern show Enlightened. This one, lots of people watched, and wrote thinkpieces about. Partly, I think, because the acting was really good, and viewers experienced the characters as actually existing humans more than one usually does while watching TV. Thus people were mad at them. And I think the writing about the show was probably a bit overconcerned with the question of who the show wanted you to be mad at, and whether these were the right people to be mad at.

This post won’t make any sense if you haven’t watched the show, and contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the show, I recommend you do so instead of reading my post! It’s good! (The show, not the post. The post is just OK.)

I just wanted to make an observation I didn’t see in the thinkpieces, which is the twinning of the characters of Rachel and Belinda. They are both committed to the idea that rich people are concentrations of resources, which with some skill can be extracted. They are both, in some sense, hacks. Rachel aims to be a writer; we are supposed to see her new husband (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential disrespect) Shane as a jerk for not taking her writing seriously, but simultaneously recognize that she’s not herself serious in her writing goals. Belinda gives a massage to a hotel guest (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential abandonment) played by Jennifer Coolidge, soothing her client with a routine that asks her to say “I am my own phallic mother and my own vaginal father” and throwing in a chant of the Gayatri Mantra. Nothing here suggests she has any special ability to heal; but Coolidge’s character imprints on her, promising her patronage, her own business bankrolled by Coolidge’s money.

This is the world they live in, this is their game — everything changes if you can get the roaming eye of wealth to land, out of all the places it could settle, on you.

But Belinda lets it get away. One of the neatest tricks of this series is the way Coolidge’s character at first appears to be played for slightly low-rent laughs, then for pity, only to finally reveal herself as the only person on the show who arrives at anything like real insight. She explains to Belinda that her impulse to fund Belinda’s House of Healing was just her impulsive way of trying to buy intimacy, creating another person bound to her by money — then she gives her a bunch of money anyway, but walks away. What follows is one of the show’s Big Scenes: Rachel asks Belinda for advice about her suddenly not-fully-enjoyable marriage, and Belinda just walks out, visibly weary and in pain. A lot of viewers have seen this as a triumphant moment, Belinda exerting real agency, refusing to perform emotional labor for yet another overprivileged guest, but I don’t think that’s exactly right. Rachel doesn’t pair with Coolidge here, she pairs with Belinda herself, and Belinda’s bitterness here is coming from the fact that Rachel has succeeded where she’s just failed.

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It didn’t have to be this way

This is not a post about COVID-19, or Afghanistan, or the slow-then-fast dissolution of the journalism industry, or somebody’s tweet that made me mad. It’s about the Baltimore Orioles. If you don’t care about the Baltimore Orioles — and honestly, if you are not, like me, a lifetime fan, why, why, why would you? — feel free not to read. But I’m gonna write.

The Orioles are rebuilding. Or so we are told. Rebuilding takes time. You lose a lot as the pieces of the next good team comes into place. Or so we are told. You trade away everybody who can place a fastball or hit a curveball for prospects and some of them pan out. You lose so much you get high draft picks and those draft picks pan out. Fan patience will be rewarded. Or so we are told. But some of us don’t live in Baltimore anymore. I, for instance, live in Wisconsin, and have taken on as a secondary rooting interest the Milwaukee Brewers. And that’s how I know it didn’t have to be this way.

If you spend your life in the American League East, you can say to yourself, well, there’s the big-market teams, the Yankees and Red Sox and Blue Jays, who never have to resist the temptation of the big-ticket free agent, and there’s the Rays, who have some kind of Magic Savvy, and then there is us.

But look at the Brewers. They’re not rich; payroll is 19th out of the 30 teams, right between the Rockies and the Rangers. There’s nothing really special about them, to be honest. There are no books about the genius of the Brewers. Right now they’re really good. But they’re not always good. They’re sometimes bad. But not as bad as the Orioles are right now. The Brewers have had a winning percentage under .400 exactly once in the team’s entire history, twice if you count their first year as the 1969 Seattle Pilots when it was .395. Milwaukee had some really good teams about a decade ago and then they weren’t so good and now they’re contenders again.

They’re normal. This is what following a normal team is like.

The Orioles have had a winning percentage under .400 in three of the last four years (barring a miraculous renaissance in the closing weeks of 2021.) And in the short season of 2020, they just cleared it, playing .417 ball.

How did the Brewers do it? Well, they did put together the best farm system in baseball by the middle of 2016. But they didn’t do it by putting a AAA team on the field. They still had Ryan Braun, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Lucroy, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, well-liked players who’d been on the Brewers for a while. (Lucroy was traded for a couple of prospects in mid-season, and my beloved Carlos Gomez had departed the year before in a trade that brought them Josh Hader — it’s not like they didn’t do any tearing down.) They had a free agent pitcher, Matt Garza, who’s signed a big contract with them after the 2013 season when the Brewers finished 23 games out of first, and they traded a young shortstop, Jean Segura, who turned out to be pretty good, for Chase Anderson, so they had a couple of major league starters, and some of the guys they already had pitched OK too. They signed Chris Carter as a free agent. They went 73-89. The next year they won 86 games and didn’t make the playoffs, and then they added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and then they were very, very good.

The Brewers did everything the Orioles said you have to resist doing in order to improve; and they improved. They took the Dodgers to game 7 in the NLCS in 2018. and they’re running away with the NL Central right now.

I’m not saying the current Orioles disaster isn’t a way to get better. Yeah, yeah, the Astros did it, I get it. I’m saying it’s the worst way to get better. It stinks to watch. The Orioles just lost their 14th game in a row. It’s their second 14-game losing streak this season. They are 38-81. I feel sorry for the players who have to be on the field for this. Especially because it didn’t have to be this way.

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GPT-3 me, by the book

Not gonna lie, it has always been a dream of mine, a marker of being a Real Writer, to do a New York Times Book Review “By the Book” interview, and this summer I did it. Really fun — I got to praise a lot of writers I truly admire (including Janet Malcolm, who I sort of hoped would read it, and who died the day before the interview came out.) and hopefully helped generate some publicity for Shape.

I also recently got beta access to Open AI’s “GPT-3” text-generation engine. So I thought it would be fun to give it part of my interview and see what happened if I asked it to continue.

Here are some results. What’s bold is text I supplied to GPT-3 (along with the whole text of the interview previous to that line.) This uses the davinci engine, with temperature set to 0.7.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read “The Little House on the Prairie” series as it came out, and I think I really liked them. I reread “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” many times. I loved “The Hobbit” so much I would reread the whole thing and just skip the long chapters. The first adult book I read was “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers, when I was 10 or 11, because I loved the title so much. It was a little hard to get into because it was so slow, but I was so happy to be reading a book that was all about people being sad, because I was so sad!

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s so perfect.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Note that GPT-3 has enough text to recognize this as a “By The Book” interview, because the two questions it generates are indeed on the standard list of questions that the NYTBR asks authors. “Temperature” is a measure of how constrained GPT-3 feels to pick the word it seems most likely at each stage. One cool thing about the interface is it gives you the probability distribution it drew from for each word. THe word “Heart” above, for instance, is one of the lowest-probability words in the above response; GPT-3 rated it the 11th most likely next word, with a probability of 0.8%. Top three were “Cat” (4.0%), “Aut” (1.7%), and “Fountain” (1.7%). Wait, “Aut”? Yeah — GPT-3 uses “tokens,” not words, and sometimes these are parts of words, or even just initial letters. I imagine “Aut” could have been the beginning of “Autobiography” or “Author.” Presumably running the algorithm at a lower temperature would have made it much more likely I’d have read something starting with “The Cat.” Having settled on “Heart,” the following word “is” came in with an 87% probability, far above the next most likely candidate, “of.”

In fact, it’s kind of cool how the OpenAI interface displays these probabilities, so I’m gonna screenshot and include:

Red means unlikely, green means likely — so you can see very clearly the red “Heart” and the green “Is.” Note that the standard questions from “By the Book” are almost all green once you get past the first word; you’re on a track the algorithm’s very confident about. “The Go-Between,” by L.P. Hartley is a real book, by the way, though not one I’d ever heard of, and not one I think my earlier responses could fairly be said to make you think I’d like. The answer itself, though, while it’s not my style, is very much “By the Book” style.

Here’s what you get at temperature 0:

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a voracious reader, but I don’t remember any particular books. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room and a bird in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in

This is pretty typical. If you pick the most likely “next word” every time, you get stuck repeating yourself, getting more and more certain that staying in the loop is the right thing to do because after all it’s what you’ve been doing! The only even moderately low-probability words here occur when a new animal is introduced to the room.

What about temperature 1, giving GPT-3 maximal license to draw less-likely next tokens? (Maybe temp 1 means literally draw from the imputed distribution? I’m not sure.)

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Neil Postman recommended “Wind in the Willows,” which my mother read to me and I read at my mother’s knee, many many times, more times than I can count. I come back to it every year or so, and it’s still a great book. I also was nuts about “Blondie”; the single joke in the joke book never loses its appeal for me. I loved “Black Beauty” and several other Victorian kids’ classics with similar emotional power; I haven’t read them again yet because I never have any time. I can’t forget how much I loved it the first time I read it.

Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?

“Lovecraft Country,” without a doubt. Also my essay in the Yale series, “Mao II and Then Some.” I also think my Song of Ice and Fire “house style” recaps (here, here, here and piecemeal here); they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve written. Even my husband likes them, and he doesn’t care about the show or the books. And the recent article on swaddling.

Edited to make explicit that in-kind donations by the author also serve as p.r. I should have included them, which I wish I had done.

Well, this is the most fun at any rate. I love the idea that Neil Postman was recommending books to childhood me, and to my mom, I guess. This one actually feels to me the most like my own prose style, even as the things it says don’t quite make sense? Maybe there’s a tradeoff between style and sense. At any rate, there is no actual essay called “Mao II and Then Some,” but that’s 100% a title I would use, and DeLillo really is a writer I admire and didn’t mention in the piece. “Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?” is not one of NYTBR’s standard questions for this feature, but doesn’t it sound like one? Oh, here’s the color chart so you can see how much redder and more daring this output is.

Impressive work — and let me emphasize that I just did those three runs and that’s what I showed you, no cherry-picking of the best output. Not something that makes me feel easily impersonable, of course. But I didn’t give it that much of my writing….!

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“I do it all better”

“I was also at the exhibition of prominent French artists Bonnard Picasso Matisse etc. and noted much to my satisfaction that I do it all better.”

Max Beckmann, letter to his wife Quappi Beckmann, 28 Jul 1925

Self-portrait, from around the same time (this is hung at the Harvard Art Museum and is well worth a trip if you’re on campus)

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The Milwaukee Bucks are the champions of the National Basketball Association

First of all, let’s be clear — I am a bandwagon fan. Despite having lived in Wisconsin since 2005, I only got into the Bucks three years ago. I feel a real envy for the long-time fans I know here, who, if they are old enough, have been waiting for a Bucks title since the year I was born. They feel this in a way I can’t.

That said: what a run! Bucks getting revenge on the Heat, who knocked us out early last year … then beating the Nets, the kind of super-team Giannis could have jumped to but didn’t… coming through and winning those key games against the Hawks without Giannis (including a superhero game from my favorite Buck, Brook Lopez) — and finally, Giannis coming back and being so huge in the finals, scoring 50 in the closeout game; and best of all, Giannis got there by hitting 17 out of 19 free throws — it was like, he said “I have one vulnerability and I think tonight is the night to turn it off.” You couldn’t write a better story.

Giannis, the philosopher:

And the text, if that link dies:

When I think about like, “Yeah I did this.” You know, “I’m so great. I had 30, I had 25-10-10,” or whatever the case might be. Because you’re going to think about that … Usually the next day you’re going to suck. Simple as that. Like, the next few days you’re going to be terrible. And I figured out a mindset to have that, when you focus on the past, that’s your ego: “I did this in the past. I won that in the past.”

And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride. “Yeah, the next game, Game 5, I’ll do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.” That’s your pride talking. Like, it doesn’t happen. You’re right here. I try and focus in the moment. In the present. And that’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectations. That’s going out there and enjoying the game. Competing at a high level. I’ve had people throughout my life who have helped me with that. But that’s a skill that I’ve tried to, like, how do you say? Perfect it. Yeah, master it. It’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.

Parade tomorrow in Milwaukee.

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Standard Form 171

Also in this binder is my mom’s application to work for the Federal Government, which involved filling out “Standard Form 171.” In 1971, SF_171 required you to report whether you were “Mrs.” or “Miss,” your height and weight, and whether you were now, or within the last ten years had been, a member of the Communist Party, USA, or any subdivision of same.

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