Staff Picks: Kentuckis, Kerchiefs, and Choreography

By The Paris Review April 24, 2020

SAMANTA SCHWEBLIN. PHOTO: © ALEJANDRA LÓPEZ.

There has always been art that appears, in retrospect, to have been eerily prescient—Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction of “fifteen minutes of fame,” say, or Umberto Romano’s 1937 painting of a figure checking their smartphone. Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, published in the original Spanish in 2018 and due out from Riverhead in Megan McDowell’s translation May 5, is this kind of visionary: a novel of a near-future dystopia that has suddenly, in the months before its U.S. publication, become nearer still. Unraveling the premise is the pleasure of this book, but in briefest summary: a new toy called a kentuki appears on the market. Consumers can choose to own these stuffed animals, who move around on wheels and have cameras for eyes, or to “dwell” in them—purchasing a connection that allows users, from their computers or tablets, to control the toy’s movements and see what it sees. Each kentuki can form only a single connection, randomly assigned to people around the world, and when it is disconnected, the object becomes disposable. Indeed, the entire pleasure of the toy is built not on its possibilities but on its limitations: the dwellers cannot speak to the owners, though they can hear what is said to them. From within these confines, a global obsession emerges. Dwellers remain at home in front of their screens for days, hypnotized by their kentukis’ quotidian lives on the other side of the planet. Society divides into watchers and those who desire to be watched. The seemingly simple technology is inevitably bent to hold all of human nature—it becomes a cure against modern loneliness, a political tool, an entrepreneurial possibility (an industry of kentuki accessories springs up), a tool for blackmail, and, of course, a way to fulfill our basest desires (on the black market, pedophiles purchase connections to kentukis that dwell in homes with children). Each chapter is headed by the name of a city—Oaxaca, Zagreb, Vancouver, Lima—and the reader flits in and out of lives around the world, forced to confront the voyeurism that is the essence of fiction. At a time when most of us are indoors, reaching for one another through our screens, I can think of no book that more clearly illustrates how close, yet far, that still leaves us. —Nadja Spiegelman 

I have to admit that I am obsessed with Dua Lipa’s new album Future Nostalgia. It is, frankly, a perfect pop record—but how could it not be? Stuart Price is a producer on it, and surely that’s where some of the Kylie Minogue–esque disco sheen comes from. When I first listened, more than a month ago (the very beginning of quarantine!), I laughed in delight as “Love Again” started, a song that samples the one-hit wonder White Town’s 1997 claim to fame, “Your Woman,” which has given me more than a few sardonic smiles through breakups over the years (“So much for all your highbrow Marxist ways / Just use me up and then you walk away”). But there’s also the sheer joy of “Hallucinate,” which I can’t wait to bop to in public someday when the coronavirus is a thing of the past, and the squelchy pleasure of the title track, which includes the unexpected line “Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.” It’s a fun album! And don’t we all need some fun right now? —Rhian Sasseen

WINONA RYDER IN THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. PHOTO: MICHELE K. SHORT/HBO.

My advice is to save The Plot against America for days when you’re feeling relatively okay about things; you need a strong psychological starting position to watch the television adaptation of Philip Roth’s alternate history, in which FDR loses the 1940 election to the noted aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh keeps America out of the war, invites Nazis into the White House, and begins to forcibly relocate urban Jewish families to rural areas to “Americanize” them. As in reality, the horror, shown through the eyes of nine-year-old Philip Levin and his family, unfolds quickly and yet not. In early episodes, even as new policies are pronounced, the family is still debating what to do or whether they need to do anything. Some are ready to emigrate to Canada, while others see no danger at all—America First is no problem; we’re American! Of course it all goes to hell—burning, looting, shooting, and a smooth-coiffed, seemingly poreless Mrs. Lindbergh quietly asking the citizenry to please stop and go back to normal, as if that were an option for those murdered, bereft, and scarred by what has happened. The role played by Americans in World War II is so mythologized and revered that it’s easy not to think about who Americans actually were in those days, beyond Rosie the Riveters and D-Day heroes. The Plot against America sheds light on the precariousness of American identity and pluralism, both in that era and, with eerily familiar scenes and character types, our own. —Jane Breakell

Since my teen years at the School of American Ballet, which shares a building with Film at Lincoln Center, the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival has heralded spring. The annual roundup of contemporary French films provided me an entrée to the arts beyond New York City, and the institution’s commitment to dance on camera likewise incited a curiosity about how my own art form could interact with others. This year, highlights of Rendez-Vous streamed online and included Damien Manivel’s 2019 dance film Isadora’s Children. This conceptual work depicts four women independently reconstructing the same solo: Isadora Duncan’s La mère, which was choreographed around 1923 in response to the tragic drowning of her first two children. The solo is a slow procession, the dancer gliding from stage right to stage left in simple, gestural steps, like a mother shepherding her children into life and toward death. It’s set to Alexander Scriabin’s Étude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, a piece for piano that recalls Chopin, though more heavily weighted with a sense of solitude and loss. To match, the film is sparse, each woman’s efforts accompanied only by this somber melody. Manivel allows dance to do most of the talking, but what little dialogue he includes is both organic and profound. —Elinor Hitt

Charulata (1964) opens with the eponymous figure embroidering the letter B on a handkerchief. Though the initial is for Bhupati, the name of her husband, Charu will later thread a future for her cousin-in-law, Amal, through the letter B. Bardhaman, then Britain, she supposes. Bardhaman, betrothal, Britain, Amal corrects, and then he imagines a return: Bristol, barrister, back to Bengal. Satyajit Ray’s film, set in the late nineteenth century, is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella The Broken Nest. It is the rare film that engages deeply with writing, that is dense with allusion and keenly observant on the spurs and perils of reading. Charu and Amal bond over their love of Bengali literature. Amal writes poems with lines about “the path of memory’s gilded pebbles”; Charu sighs, knowing the clichés, but she sees, in how he engages with what he loves, a way ahead. When she presents Bhupati with the handkerchief, he wonders how she ever had the time to complete it; yet her days slip by, barely marked. Charu sports opera glasses and peers at the world from afar, her eyes rarely met. Innocence is its own isolation, but as desire finds its object, as Charu comes to see her vision has sway, the mood turns. She begins to write, and that writing astounds. Amal senses her gaze. One is certain that before long the handkerchief will be damp with tears. The true revelation, however, is that within the world of this film, the pain of growth, of nascent feeling, is never resented. There is an image I cannot shake: Charu on a swing in the garden, the camera fixed on her face. Her expression turns bleak, thoughts roil with pain, and she smiles, singing Tagore’s “Phule Phule Dhole Dhole.” Longing for someone is also longing to become someone. —Chris Littlewood

STILL FROM SATYAJIT RAY’S CHARULATA.


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