Elaine Blair is a regular contributor to The New York Review. (February 2020)

IN THE REVIEW

Learning to Fight

The Topeka School

by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner is the author of three novels, three books of poetry, and numerous critical essays, including the book-length monograph The Hatred of Poetry. The more books of prose he writes, the more clearly a kind of common persona, singular yet plural, emerges across his work: his narrators, whether fictional or not, share some facts of their background with one another, while also writing Lerner’s poems and thinking lines from Lerner’s essays. Together, they—or the plural he, a poet and reluctant novelist, born in Kansas and housed in Brooklyn—sprawl easily across the fiction-nonfiction divide.

A Woman’s Work

Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

by Kate Kirkpatrick

Diary of a Philosophy Student, Volume 2, 1928–29

by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Barbara Klaw, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, and Marybeth Timmermann, and translated from the French by Barbara Klaw
Simone de Beauvoir’s was the first attempt to show how consciousness of one’s lower status, of one’s deviance from the norm, can affect women. Though earlier thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had made the case for women’s rights, Beauvoir went beyond advocacy: her deep study of the philosophy, psychology, and history of female alterity opened up entirely new channels of thought. With The Second Sex, the modern feminist polemic was born.

Fighting for Her Life

Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin

edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder
Andrea Dworkin did not love pornography. I don’t mean this as comic understatement of her well-publicized, steadfast opposition to it and of her attempts, with legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, to pass ordinances in numerous cities that would allow women to sue pornographers for damages. What I mean to draw attention to is that she devoted an entire book and part of another book (Woman Hating) to the close scrutiny of something she did not love or like. Of course you would hardly expect an activist fighting rape and battery to like those things: you would expect her to write about them out of a commitment to trying to stop them. But Dworkin’s involvement with pornography is a little different.

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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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