Staff Picks: Dictators, Deep Souls, and Doom

By The Paris Review

August 21, 2020

THIS WEEK’S READING

LYONEL TROUILLOT. PHOTO: GEORGES SEGUIN. CC BY-SA (HTTPS://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-SA/3.0).

A sense of unease pervades the Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot’s Street of Lost Footsteps, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, as does a sense of political hopelessness. The novel charts, over the course of a single night, a violent uprising in Port-au-Prince against the dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal, told from the perspectives of three characters: a taxi driver, a madam in a brothel, and a post office employee. Central to the story is the problem of how one should approach the subject of political violence in a work of art. In language that does nothing to prettify—in fact, the poetry of Trouillot’s sentences serves to better underscore the horrors he describes—the characters navigate lives lived in a moment of grim uncertainty. “How could we have made love,” the postal worker asks his lover, “when we were perhaps already dead, uncertain of our own existence, even incapable of imagining the point of existence? … What do such pretty phrases have to do with the paralysis of terrified flesh, already absent from its own desires?” These are salient questions, questions that have no answers. “In the silence,” he continues, “the dream flowered in her eyes. In some way or another, we had led the night to us.” —Rhian Sasseen 

It wasn’t until my four brief years living in Appalachia that I realized how distinct it is from the Deep South as a culture. Certainly, the two overlap and relate to each other in a number of ways, but you need only look at their landscapes to sense the difference: flat forests and swamps versus vast mountain ranges and swaths of coal country necessarily provide for divergent experiences. Appalachia’s struggles lie forgotten in comparison to those of the North, the South, and even the Midwest. For that reason, I urge you to pick up Leah Hampton’s F*ckface and Other Stories. The humor and the hardship of those mountains are imprinted in the very bones of this collection. The title story immediately grabbed me with its compassion and wit, and the rest of them continued to push the envelope by constantly reasserting the dignity of the populace alongside the political, economic, and ecological tragedy of the region. The stories work hard to reject “all the stories blaming mountain people” for America’s systemic problems but work harder to represent the complex reality of living in Appalachia. Ranging from a forest ranger’s marriage falling apart in the midst of ruinous fires and elections to a lovestruck woman’s vision of splendor in Dolly Parton—patron saint of Tennessee—each story envisions an especial view of the mountains. Oftentimes, my friends from the area would tell me quite grim stories about themselves or their families, but they would be laughing the entire time; Hampton captures this sensation to an incredible exactitude. And if it’s any indication of how enthralling and rich these stories proved to be, I finished eighty percent of the book in a single sitting. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

BILL FRISELL. PHOTO: MONICA FRISELL.

Bill Frisell is one of my top three favorite living musicians, along with Joni Mitchell and a rotating third artist I can’t decide on today. The fact that so much sadness, so much joy, and so much humor can seamlessly coexist in one sensibility, one body of work, even one song, has always meant that I feel less alone in the world listening to Frisell’s music, lovers and haters be damned—which is to say I recognize myself, or something I aspire to, in his music. Out today is Frisell’s new album Valentine, featuring his current working trio with Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Frisell has been playing with each of them for years, and both have appeared on many of Frisell’s recordings, but Valentine is the first record with this exact configuration. Morgan has one of the best bass tones in the business, like he’s playing an ancient, deep-souled redwood tree, or like if Nick Drake had been an upright bass player. Royston plays, at times, like a super-precise popcorn popper. With every new album—and there’s one or two every year—Frisell tries on a different mood, mode, genre. I sometimes want a “regular” Bill Frisell album, just his dreamy sensibility against a backdrop of jazz. That’s what Valentine is, and I’m really grateful for it. It mixes old and new tunes by Frisell and others; on ones he’s played a lot, like “Baba Drame” and “What the World Needs Now,” Frisell finds a deep groove, embellishing meaningfully everywhere, leaving space everywhere else, weaving a cohesive fabric with his partners. There’s a gorgeous version of “Keep Your Eyes Open,” a decades-old Frisell composition. And the album ends with a subtly triumphant rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” a gentle anthem for and against current events. All of which is to say that this is a great album, one of Frisell’s clearest statements in years. It won’t change anyone’s opinion about his music, but it may feel to many, as it does to me, like a much-needed visit from a dear old friend during a lonely time. —Craig Morgan Teicher

The second episode of Hulu’s High Fidelity, aptly titled “Track 2,” begins with Minnie Riperton playing as Zoë Kravitz describes the “delicate art” of making a playlist. There are rules, apparently—it can’t be too obvious or too obscure, it has to feel familiar but still surprising, it has to tell a story—that the show itself seems to follow. And certainly every song in every scene feels as intentional as a carefully curated playlist, as tributary as a love letter. Here, the soundtrack says, I made this for you. This invitational approach to music redeems the show’s characters, who otherwise could be seen as snobs. An early scene shows them playing “Come On Eileen” in earnest, off of a playlist that supposedly also contains Lauryn Hill. It’s not about what music you love, the show offers; it’s about how much you love it and how hard you’re willing to go. So an anticipatory energy hangs heavy above each scene as the music plays. An energy that feels like listening to a playlist, waiting to hear track 2 and so on and so on. A delicate art, a story. I’ll admit (albeit semi-ashamedly) that I’ve never actually read the Nick Hornby book the show is based on, but I’ve seen the 2000 film starring John Cusack, and barely any specific songs come to mind when I think of it. The opposite is true with this version. So when Hulu recently announced that the show wouldn’t be returning for a second season, the first thing I did was turn on its soundtrack. I wasn’t surprised to hear of its cancellation. All the best shows get only one season. But now I think of this one every time I hear Ann Peebles or Minnie Riperton or “Come On Eileen.” —Langa Chinyoka

In the 2016 video game Doom (which I wrote about a year and a half ago), hell is an energy drink, a panic attack, a condemned corporate office park in space. In the game’s 1993 forebear, also titled Doom, hell is a methodically mapped but no less nightmarish procession of puzzles. Booting it up for the first time on my Nintendo Switch, I expected to encounter a mere historical curiosity, something I might play for thirty minutes before setting it down for good. As technology progresses and game design develops alongside it, the classics become further enshrined in the dust of memory, barely scrutable to future generations. Instead, I was thrilled to discover that the joys of the original Doom require no footnotes, no scholarly preface; immediately, the player is immersed in a cramped, bloody, pixelated approximation of the netherworld and asked to shoot their way out. The early levels challenge the player to learn the game’s language; the later levels spit out whole paragraphs at once, demanding complete fluency, an innate, twitch-level understanding of how each demon behaves, how quickly a rocket can collapse a distance, how much everything, absolutely everything, can hurt. Nearing my fortieth attempt at a mission in the game’s fourth episode, “Thy Flesh Consumed,” I couldn’t keep my hands, and then my entire body, from quaking. Stress-induced tremors are perhaps not the usual mark of a good time, but I promise that in this case, they absolutely were. As you’re reading this, I’ve probably found my way back to the game once more, flitting through the fields of one-eyed cacodemons, ducking the volleyed flames of imps, dancing to the howls of the barons of hell. —Brian Ransom

STILL FROM THE VIDEO GAME DOOM, 1993.


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