Once in a while you read articles in the same sitting that seem to be parts of larger narrative, or maybe it’s that the second one is a clap-back to the first.
This happened recently when I read an archived article by A.J. Liebling that the New Yorker online reprinted after the death of Prince Philip. Liebling’s post from November 29, 1947, looked at how the press was covering the royal wedding of the future queen, honing in specifically on reportage by one correspondent billed as “Noted American Society Woman and Authoress.”
Sometime during the COVID spring, I was walking behind a young couple and overheard the guy ask the girl, “Did you hear the Luke Combs cover of ‘Fast Car’?” I wasn’t familiar with Luke Combs, but I was surprised to realize that the Tracy Chapman song had remained in the pop vernacular for more than three decades.
As a Black lesbian folk singer appealing to white audiences, Chapman was a pop anomaly. But her song is a perfect slice of Americana. I heard her busking “Fast Car” in the Harvard Square subway station a few times in the 1980s. I remember hearing it once from another part of the station, and the reiteration of “be someone, be someone” in that large space seemed portentous to my young self.
Back when airline emergency instructions came tucked inside the seatback pockets in front of you, I’d sometimes get unnerved by the illustrated mother putting on her mask as a child sits next to her. Yes, it’s logical to secure your own breathing device first. But I couldn’t help envisioning the masked mother turning to find the kid already dead.
As the life-giving conduit of oxygen, masks have (save for a few scenes in Blue Velvet) long represented protection amid catastrophe. Infantrymen in World War I lived in mortal dread of the shout for “Gas!” Gas masks became the symbolic escape hatch of battlefield carnage well beyond the next World War.
Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.” If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut.
The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.
Great fiction has been partial to this device. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, if only Annushka hadn’t spilled the sunflower oil near the railway turnstile, Berlioz would not have slipped and been decapitated by the train and the poet would not have been compelled to pursue the evil magician for the length of the novel.
The most Simpsons of Simpsons moments in my reckoning occurs not in the television series but in the 2007 feature film. When the biohazardous Springfield is threatened to be destroyed under its giant glass dome, the family and fellow residents gather in church, where Homer grabs and frantically thumbs through a Bible, exclaiming, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”
By 2007, the series was more than a decade past its prime, but the movie was peak Simpsons—first because this was the last time religion was important enough to warrant a joke, and also because it identified what Americans at the dawn of social media’s chokehold could not find in church: answers.
A long time ago I made up the term literary enabler. I use it for something I read that perfectly articulates a half-thought-out, non-logic-based sensation that might well be the first thread of a very important philosophical insight.
One of my favorite literary enablers was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—specifically, the passage where the protagonist sees The Oxbow Incident at the same theater where he first saw the movie fourteen years before. Back then, he had emerged from the theater to the scent of privet, the camphor berries on the sidewalk popping under his shoes. Now the same exact thing happens, and he becomes fixated on this perfectly bookended capsule of time:
But what about the intervening fourteen years? What has happened in them? What, for example, about the split plywood seats in the theatre, enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theatre. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.
Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).
In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.
But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself.
There were parts of summer I hated growing up. From fourth through eighth grade, playing in the Cinderella Softball League meant practicing next to a sewage treatment plant. Every day I ran after grounders in a swampy valley that was buggy in addition to stinking to high heaven. I had all kinds of pollen allergies, but we were relatively poor and the relatively poor didn’t medicate these things. I endured by swatting away mosquitos with my mitt and rubbing my red eyes with my other hand. (I wasn’t the world’s greatest athlete.)
Though I grew up in a small city, I had plenty of access to what we called “the sticks.” I loved forests but had no overriding passion for rural America—probably because in Western New York rural meant poor. But thanks to novels, stories, and paintings, I had fallen in love with the summer landscapes of pre-industrial America by the time I got to college.