Conversation with Maxine, of the Brooklynite Cabal (crwr/english majors who went to high school in Brooklyn together, went to college at Oberlin together, and came back to Brooklyn together), at a holiday party:
Maxine: So I heard you moved? Where?
Kevin: Yeah! Park Slope, near the 7th avenue F stop.
Maxine: Near the hospital?
Kevin: Yes. You familiar with the area?
Maxine: ...We grew up there.
Maxine: Everyone here.
Park Slope is gorgeous! Absolutely fucking gorgeous. I mean, I knew that before I moved here--it's why I moved here, really--but only after coming this deep into the neighborhood do I really appreciate how beautiful it is. It doesn't feel at all like New York, it feels more like the downtown part of some large-town-not-quite-a-city in Massachussetts, Connecticut, anywhere vaguely New England. None of the tired urban squalor that 80% of the city's neighborhoods have in common; it's all Christmas wreaths and baby carriages, and parents talk to their kids about baseball teams and conservation of volume instead of GIT BACK HERE SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP. (It's so cute...the parents talk to their kids as if their kids were little grown-ups, and the kids talk all grown-up in response. Maybe this is what good parenting looks like?) When it snows there's a coat of vanilla icing over everything. Very Norman Rockwell.
My room may be dorm-like and suffocatingly tiny, but with Prospect Park one one side and 7th Avenue (diner-and-laundromat street) on the other, I really have no excuse to be there. Except, you know, when I'm sick. Like now.
2. I've finally found a few places to eat in Park Slope that I can afford to enjoy more than twice a month. All of them are extremely wanting in atmosphere, but they're about the same price as McDonald's (which I used to eat at least once a week in povertyville), have better variety, and are about twice as good. One of them is a generic Chinese-Mexican place, which, while far more expensive than your typical dirt-cheap New York Chinese-Mexican place, is also proportionately better in quality, and still comparable to a sandwich at the deli. Another, which is a diner, not a bakery, despite the huge "DONUTS" sign out front, is the quintessential greasy spoon. Not the romantic ideal of a lonely urban diner, captured at first by Hopper's Nighthawks
and then glamorized into its exact reverse, but the kind of place that inspired the painting in the first place. A newspaper-and-cigarette-butts kind of place, lit by flickering white ceiling tubes, where wizened Jewish grandpas sip iced tea from chipped plastic tumblers and the lone waitress is a scowling middle-aged Greek lady with a dirty handkerchief on her head. There is a wide variety of menu items under eight dollars, most of them large and meat-based, which come with potatoes and your choice of vegetable, making it a great place to go for a pseudo-home-cooked meal if you don't have the energy to prepare one yourself. And the bizarre, gnarly conversations that the aging, racially diverse other customers have in the adjoining booths--not hard to see how that kind of thing has become material for generations of stand-up comedians. It's like eating at a significantly dodgier version of the diner from Seinfeld.
3. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
by Julian Barnes is a very good read. It's just as smart-assed and pretentious and workshoppy as the title suggests, and it's still a good read. The first chapter is an alternate retelling of the story of Noah's Ark, as recounted by a stowaway (who deeply, deeply
resents the humans for the account presented in Genesis, which he regards as historically inaccurate). That tale is masterfully told, even when borderline blasphemous; the creature somewhat appropriately has the voice of an ornery Jewish grandfather and is scathingly funny in his exposition. What follows afterward is not a series of narratives describing subsequent events in the history of the world, as one might expect from the title, but a hodgepodge of chronologically sequential stand-alone short stories, academic papers, legal documents, art history lectures, and what have you, all written in a different style and a different voice, which seem to be completely unrelated until you realize that all but one of them is tied to the first story by an intricate network of motifs, themes, and historical running gags to which the speaker of each document is completely oblivious. (Particularly compelling is the story of the boat full of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, who are smuggled onto a cruise ship out of an emerging Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, only to be denied asylum at every harbor at which the ship lands, due to anti-Semitism.) Apparently the history of the world is the story of Noah's Ark told ten and a half times, over ten and a half different time periods. (And, in a fuck-you to all the creative writing majors who looked at the title and immediately thought he wrote ten chapters and couldn't bear to axe the eleventh, it's actually eleven and a half.) A major theme in the book is the unreliability of history, and how stories get altered and lost in the retelling, with the implication that the perception of those stories passed down to us may ultimately be more important than the truth, and it is this theme that makes this collection of shorts something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Also worth mentioning about this book is that Barnes is a master of voice. Most writers struggle at establishing one
compelling, natural-sounding authorial voice; Barnes effortlessly juggles ten. If not for the one name on the cover I would have believed that this book was a concept anthology by ten different people. In one chapter he'll be a dapper, charming, engaging Oxford art history professor, giving an immensely gripping art lecture--the kind that has his students hanging on every words, the female students in particular leaning out of their desks, breathless and spellbound--and in the next he'll be an astronaut from Topeka who used to play college football and used his budding knowledge of rocket physics to play pranks on his neighbors. One of the reviewers on the back of the book (which I generally never pay attention to) described it as "masterful ventriloquism." That's exactly what it is. Most writers, even great ones, can put themselves in the heads of other people, but still come off sounding distinctively like themselves. Barnes doesn't. It's hard to tell which voice is the real Julian Barnes, even in one chapter where he talks to you, the reader, as Julian Barnes. (It's never clear what is fiction and what is nonfiction in this book--which is entirely the point.) Particularly striking are Barnes' many and diverse American voices, which somehow manage to sound unmistakably, believably American, despite the fact that Barnes is British and is writing the book from a very post-imperial perspective.
Be warned that there is a great wealth of Biblical allusions in this book. It's too provocative to be shelved as what most bookstores classify as Christian literature, yet requires too much context for it to be truly appreciated by an unfamiliar atheist. I suppose Barnes could get away with this in Britain, where even (and especially!) the atheists tend to have grown up with an Anglican upbringing, and would at the very least be culturally conversant with certain Biblical stories, like Jonah and the whale and the sacrifice of Isaac. In the secular literary circles of coastal America, however, I have the feeling that many readers will feel like they are reading a joke without a punchline. (Chapter 3 in particular, which is the court record of an eighteenth century French Catholic trial of the descendants of the stowaway in Chapter 1 for an unrelated crime, will be impenetrable to someone who has never taken a stab at making it all the way through both the Old and New Testaments; any such person may want to skip it altogether.) At the very least, you'd have to have read through the first dozen or so chapters of Genesis
to make sense of the book at all. Jews will probably love it, though. As will the more open-minded among the hay-and-buckwheat crowd. :]
4. Hey, you. I know you skipped that blue link up there. Go back up and read Genesis, if you never have. Say what you will, and believe what you will, but from any perspective it's extraordinarily beautiful prose. And the source material is a lot more compelling than what you might have seen in Sunday School dioramas. (My favorite book, I confess, in the entire Old Testament.)