The Paris Review: subscribe, subscribe, subscribe

Lorin Stein’s first issue of The Paris Review is, like the books he’s edited and the magazine’s new beautifully redesigned website, elegant, edgy, and surprising, an unusual but cohesive mix of writing characterized by intelligence and precision and, frequently, humor.

As Stein observes in his Editor’s Note, by the time The Paris Review was founded in 1953, critics had already “been lamenting the Death of the Novel, and fiction in general, since the end of World War II.” The magazine sought to — and did — prove them wrong “not by argument, but by example,” finding and publishing “not things they considered competent, or merely worthy, but things they actually loved.” Because Stein has always done the same, he and the editorial team he’s assembled are a natural fit.

The issue includes an interview with the great Norman Rush. He discusses his early experimental efforts and the evolution of his writing process, and invites his wife Elsa into the conversation as he reveals how deeply involved, on myriad levels, she is in his work. “[H]er patience with my arcane fiction was part of a greater patience, over a sort of battle we waged for years,” he says. “Some couples don’t ask much of one another after they’ve worked out the fundamentals of jobs and children. Some live separate intellectual and cultural lives, and survive, but the most intense, most fulfilling marriages need, I think, to struggle toward some kind of ideological convergence.”

Rush’s sentiments about the difficulty and sorrow of endings — “Dostoyevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s like a knife in my heart that he didn’t” — find a partial echo in the Michel Houellebecq interview: “the last pages of The Brothers Karamazov: not only can I not read them without crying, I can’t even think of them without crying.”

Sam Lipsyte always makes me cackle, and “The Worm in Philly” is probably my favorite of his stories so far. If you’re unsure whether to read Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, the delightful “Ten Stories From Flaubert” will stoke your appetite. And April Ayers Lawson’s “Virgin,” a fascinating and nuanced portrait of frustrated male desire, is as frankly sexual in its way as any of Mary Gaitskill’s work, and somehow also — I know this sounds paradoxical — sort of old-fashioned in its restraint.

But it was John Jeremiah Sullivan’s affectionate reminiscence of the Southern writer Andrew Lytle that made me tear up on the subway and almost miss my stop. Born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana, Sullivan knows and masterfully, self-mockingly evokes the problem of the semi-Southerner, of growing up a Yankee and being “aware of a nowhereness to my life … a physical ache.” By the time he enrolled at the University of the South, he says, “Merely to hear the word Faulkner at night brought forth gusty emotions.”

Lytle was 92 when he offered to mentor Sullivan, then a college dropout living in Cork. (“He told me I was a writer, but that I had no idea what I was doing. ‘This is where the older artist comes in.’”) When Sullivan arrived at the old man’s front door several months after receiving the invitation, Lytle was so frail he did not rise from the sofa but “gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, ‘Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.’” Soon Lytle was addressing Sullivan as “beloved” and asking him “to quit showering every morning, so that he could smell me better. ‘I’m pert’ near blind, boy,’ he said. ‘How will I find you in a fire?’”

It’s a virtuosic essay — generous, insightful, entertaining, and honest. “I tried to apply his criticisms, but they were sophisticated to a degree my efforts couldn’t repay,” Sullivan says. “He was trying to show me how to solve problems I hadn’t learned existed.”

If you’d like to read it for yourself, The Paris Review has very kindly offered a discount for readers of this site, so that a year’s subscription is, from now through October 3, $30 rather than $40. Just enter maudnewton in the special codes field at checkout. The discount code has expired, but pick up an issue, see what you think.

Those who live in Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, Claremont, Los Angeles, or New York can catch Stein on his whistle-stop tour. For those who don’t, there are consolations: all fifty-seven years of interviews, apart from some of the most recent, are now available in full online.

(I should mention that I contributed a diary to The Paris Review Daily, the blog edited by Thessaly La Force, over the summer.)

Maximus Clarke talks with William Gibson about his “speculative novels of last Wednesday”

In my absence, here’s Maximus Clarke — aka the guy I’m married to — on, and in conversation with, William Gibson, one of his favorite writers. Gibson reads from his new book, Zero History, tomorrow, 9/23, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, at 7 p.m.


William Gibson rose to prominence a quarter century ago with a unique hybrid of science fiction, noir, and grimy realism, set in an amoral, multicultural, commercialized, networked future. Gibson developed his distinctive vision (dubbed “cyberpunk” by others) in a series of short stories written in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I remember discovering his writing around that time in Omni magazine, and realizing, young as I was, that this guy was operating on a whole different level from the conventional SF authors I’d grown up reading.

Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984), won science fiction’s three most prestigious awards, but was soon acclaimed well beyond the confines of the genre. Neuromancer deviated sharply from traditional “space opera” in its subject matter, portraying the cutthroat struggles of global conglomerates, street gangs, and computer jockeys who hack into online systems brain-first. But it was Gibson’s virtuosic style that gained him literary respect.

As an introverted teen, he’d been an equally avid consumer of pulp sci-fi and the writings of William S. Burroughs and friends. As a writer, Gibson developed a blend of clipped, hard-boiled language and dense, sometimes overwhelming imagery. His work has often featured allusions to Asian, European and Caribbean cultures, street-level snapshots of decaying cityscapes, and fragments of consumer technology and broadcast media. Narratives tend to emerge gradually, from the perspectives of multiple protagonists.

Neuromancer and its two sequels were followed by The Difference Engine (an alternate-history tale of a computerized Victorian England, co-authored with Bruce Sterling), and a trilogy of novels revolving around a near-future version of San Francisco. But as the 21st century unfolded in ways that neither Gibson nor anyone else had quite foreseen, he turned his attention to writing about the present.

Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and the recently released Zero History are, Gibson told me, “speculative novels of last Wednesday”: adventures in the stranger-than-fiction contemporary world, as seen through a science-fiction lens. Instead of making alien futures familiar, these stories show us the familiar present in an alien light. They remind us that our age of fetishized fashion, shadowy capital flows, digital art, devious marketing, and military contractors run amok is a deeply weird time to be alive.

MC: In your fiction, certain physical objects have extraordinary presence — they become more than just plot devices. The Cornell boxes in Count Zero, the Curta calculators in Pattern Recognition, the mysterious denim clothing in Zero History: they have their own stories, almost their own personalities. You’ve written previously about your fascination with thrift stores and eBay. What draws your attention to a particular item, and what makes you think, “This has got to be in a story”?

WG: Well, it isn’t as though I wander through the flea market, spot something, and think, “Wow, that’s got to be in a story one day.” It’s that I have a kind of vast and half-forgotten library of objects — artifacts, really, because the things that I describe are always man-made. And one of them will be summoned from the library through some unconscious or poetic process when the narrative requires it. I know that sounds precious, but I can’t think of a less precious-sounding way to put it.

I reach instinctively for something without knowing why, and place it in the narrative, and if it strikes a resonant chord with me, I’ll leave it there. There probably are times when the thing that arrives from the library proves to resonate oddly with where the narrative wants to go, and it has to be taken out and replaced with something resonates more in tune with the rest of the structure.

But I myself have wondered why I do that — why I depict a universe of man-made objects, with people walking among them (laughs). My best answer is that it’s the way I perceive things. And I also suspect that the narratives of objects are more available to us when the objects themselves have become slightly decrepit. So I think my interest in old things, and worn things, isn’t about nostalgia in any conventional sense; it’s about the revelation of the narrative of how that object came to be in the world, and what it once might have meant to someone.

It feels to me as though those objects also serve the purpose of humanizing the environment that the reader encounters them in. That was more consciously valuable to me when I started trying to write science fiction set in some imaginary future, and wanted to bring life to environments that have often been depicted as quite sterile.
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Agenda: more of the same, with Baldwin interlude

Apart from the occasional Twitter flurry, I’m really only doing one thing in my free time these days (getting closer, thanks for asking). With a few exceptions.

Next Wednesday, September 15, I’ll ask Rosecrans Baldwin some questions following a reading from his smart, taut, very accomplished first novel, You Lost Me There, about a scientist whose memories of his screenwriter wife are upended by some angry notes he finds in her office long after her funeral.

Baldwin and I share an admiration for Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene, and I’m interested in the way You Lost Me There, like The End of the Affair, turns on the discovery of a woman’s diary. We’ll be at McNally Jackson at 7 p.m.