Elaine Blair is a regular contributor to The New York Review. (June 2015)

IN THE REVIEW

Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)

Robert B. Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books, early 1980s
Until I arrived at the Review as an editorial assistant, I had never met anyone who so rarely engaged in idle pleasantries as Bob. His daily language was pared down, accurate, and sincere. I found his example revelatory, and I would ponder his usage and elisions like a giddy college freshman. Bob would never, for instance, wish us a good weekend. Presumably he had no particular investment in the quality of our weekends, and possibly he didn’t even know when his assistants’ weekends were, since we took turns working Saturday and Sunday shifts with him. But was he also, I wondered, rejecting the implied value of a good weekend? Is the goal of leisure time pleasure? Edification? Novel experience? If we couldn’t settle on criteria, we couldn’t possibly arrive at a valuation, in which case why bother asking on Monday morning how someone’s weekend had been?

Looking After the Knausgaards

Karl Ove Knausgaard, New York City, 2012

My Struggle: Book Four

by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Time is the medium of Karl Ove’s intimacy with his children, and time, as expressed in number of pages read, is the medium of our intimacy with Karl Ove. We reach the newly translated fourth volume having spent many hours in Karl Ove’s company as a husband and father, as a young adult, an adolescent, and a child.

‘The Smallest Possible Disaster’

Félix Vallotton: Cinq Heures or Intimité, 1898

Dept. of Speculation

by Jenny Offill
You can read Jenny Offill’s new novel in about two hours. It’s short and funny and absorbing, an effortless-seeming downhill ride that picks up astonishing narrative speed as it goes. What’s remarkable is that Offill achieves this effect using what you might call an experimental or avant-garde style of narration, one that we associate with difficulty and disorientation rather than speed and easy pleasure.

Hilton and Love

Hilton Als, New York City, 2005

White Girls

by Hilton Als
Hilton Als is a theater critic for The New Yorker, but the two books he has written are not simply, or even primarily, works of criticism. His characteristic form is a kind of essay in which biography, memoir, and literary criticism flow into one another as if it were perfectly …

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Love Objects

Rooney Mara as Catherine in Spike Jonze's film Her

Spike Jonze’s film Her is a story about machines and humans and human-like machines. Skin is important. The unnatural appearance of Catherine, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the hero, makes her seem something other than a flesh-bound fellow human with Theodore.

Single Women and the Sitcom

Mindy Kaling, right, creator and star of The Mindy Project

Because of the conditions of their production, sitcoms tend to have something in common with life itself: no one knows in advance when they’re going to end. The full arc of a TV series is not usually mapped out in advance, the show is subject to abrupt cancellation, and there is no artistic consensus on how to handle its conclusion even when writers know that the end is coming; a television series might have an elaborate finale or simply finish out a given season without fanfare. All this gives most sitcoms a certain sense of indeterminacy—we’re bound for no obvious destination—that also applies to the characters’ relationships. As long as each episode has its own tidy, reassuring little ending, audiences tolerate a great deal of open-endedness when it comes to the hero or heroine’s romantic life.

Great American Losers

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world. The loser’s worst—that is to say, most important—problems are with women. His relationships are either unrequited or, at best, doomed. He is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.

Post-Soviet Pastoral

St. Petersburg, 2008

You often hear the Putin era described as one of exhaustion and resignation on the part of the Russian electorate. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika, about the fall of the Soviet Empire as recalled by three men and two women now in their forties, fairly pulses with depressed resignation—pulses weakly, of course, resignation not being much of a stimulant. The film, which follows the five Muscovites as they go to work, feed their children, watch TV, and mull over their memories of the late eighties and early nineties, culminates on the day of a presidential election: it is May 2008 and Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, is about to be elected president. None of the interviewees is in suspense about who will win, none of them believes it is a fair election, none of them, as far as we can tell, votes for Medvedev, and at least two of them don’t vote at all.

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