Newsletter, with Occasional Music
Before we get to the body of this newsletter, which is all about science fiction, a bookstore, and college,1 two public health links:
From 99 percent invisible, all about building a database as the world as you know it is imploding. This may help non-data nerds understand why COVID numbers were so haphazard for 18 months.2
A recent survey about health outcomes based on political preference.
On with the post.
“A door opened in the back and the nurse came out. She was a redhead with a pair of alert breasts that always managed to appear slightly akimbo, as if she shopped for her underwear in a discount irregulars place.”
Last winter,3 I started listening to Lili Anolik’s Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College. I liked the first installment in the series well enough4 and figured I’d give this one a whirl. The three writers she focuses on — Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Bret Easton Ellis — all attended the legendary liberal arts school in the mid-80s and, given how small the place is, managed to always be all up in each other’s business for a few formative years. Anolik’s main thesis is that the people each interacted with wound up in their respective works and it’s all very scandalous or something.
I mean, maybe? Or maybe that’s just, like, life at a small liberal arts college in the 1980s-early 1990s?5 But also, like, who gives a shit? I doubt you can find any fiction writer anywhere who doesn’t loosely map characters onto actual people.
I made it to episode seven before giving up.6 Maybe Anolik breaks some new ground and sticks the landing? I’ll leave that to you to discover, should you so choose.
What the pod did, however, was remind me how much I loved Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music7 and how long its been since I’ve re-read it. I pulled my copy off of the shelf and put it in the nightstand to-be-read pile. Last week, it made its way to the top.
The instant I opened it, I was back in 1994. My now-husband and I had moved to Austin, Texas, in August the year previous. Austin still felt like a foreign land, one that was always too hot and bright but was also delightfully weird and too in love with its own weirdness. The same could be said of me, too, in 1994.
By then, tho, I’d found the one place in the city that made me feel like I was going to be okay: Adventures in Crime and Space, a bookstore on Sixth Street that specialized in exactly the genres you’d think it would. It’s not there anymore, btw, and I remain shocked that it lasted as long as it did, especially once Austin’s boom took off and Sixth Street became a commodity.
In the 1990s, I’d retreat to that store when being in my 20s and far from anything that felt like home became too much. Within those musty walls, I knew I could find something that made me feel like myself, rather than what I was: a retail drone who was losing herself in the grind of living. I’d graduated with a degree, moved thousands of miles, and had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
But I knew I loved that store and nearly every title in it. Any extra money I had8 went into their cash register. Owner Willie Siros9 noticed what I bought and started pointing titles out to me. Without him, I likely never would have found Iain Banks10 or Mary Willis Walker.11 Or Gun, with Occasional Music, which I bought right when it came out.12
The thing with re-reading beloved books is that you never, ever know if they’ve been visited by the suck fairy. Thirty years is a long time.13 As much as it feels like so many part of existence will never change, they have. For example, when I was a baby, women struggled to get credit cards in their own names. By the time I was in my 20s, I was using them to buy more books than I could reasonably read. To say nothing of how much we’ve evolved on marriage equality, etc.
I worried that Gun would be one of those Sixteen Candles deals, where you realize just how racist, sexist, and other -ist your favorites were. To cut to the chase, Lethem’s debut novel has remained suck fairy free, mostly. Which isn’t to say it will always do so, mind. Who knows where we’ll be in another decade, much less three.
It may hold up as well as it does because Lethem used even earlier genre tropes as his frame. It’s very much a noir mystery, replete with clever turns of phrase, a private dick14, and a blonde or two. It’s also leans hard into an extrapolated future where questions are verboten because the authoritarians have won.15 Which holds up, too, maybe even moreso after the last few years.16
Gun is one of the few physical books that survived every culling I’ve done before moving apartments, houses, and states. Ditto Banks and Willis Walker. I should add another old friend to the nightstand stack, just to see what memories it dredges up.
What title have you revisited lately? And was it visited by the suck fairy?
and that may be interesting to no one but me
I’d like to say we won’t make these mistakes again but I am also a realist
I think that’s when it was? Time is a flat circle.
That one was about Traci Lords and the Valley and porn but not graphic in and of itself. It’s more about the whole who-knew-what-when about Lords age at the time of shooting, as well as how video didn’t so much kill the porn star as change who had control over the money.
Data point: I graduated from a small liberal arts college in 1993. My older kid is a rising junior there now. Her experience is different-in-the-details but same-in-the-spirit as mine 30 years ago.
Actually, I wouldn’t say that I gave up so much as I just never bothered downloading episode eight because I didn’t want to hear anymore about Bret Easton Ellis, who has always been and remains an insufferable, unrepentant ass, and couldn’t make myself care about who Donna Tartt was shacking up with in any given week. YMMV.
For a really good review of the book (which this newsletter isn’t), check out this 2010 one from Elizabeth Bear.
and some I did not, thanks to the wonder of credit
Which reminds me that I really need to re-read some of the Culture books. Which one should I start with?
While poking around this week, I found this 1994 essay in the NYT by Willis about her name. It’s a keeper.
It’s also a very short time. See footnote 3.
there’s a *wink* in that for anyone familiar with the book’s main character
Characters deal with the cognitive dissonance through government supplied powders that make acceptance and/or forgetting a snort away. Which is a trope creators continue to play with, even if the manner of coping is different.