Catching Up With Mountain Man Stephen McBean

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Stephen McBean does double duty, fronting the bands Black Mountain and the more experimental (and guest-heavy) Pink Mountaintops, who return on April 29 with Get Back, their first album since 2009’s Outside Love. Yet the guy never seems tired, nor has he come close to exhausting his talent for shaggy, garage-born, hippie freakout sludge-pop. I got the chance to talk to the master collaborator about toggling between groups, escaped panda bears, and “things just happening”—as apt a description of his music as any.

Get Back is the first Pink Mountaintops record in almost five years. Was that a very productive time? Did you have to burn through a lot of material to get the ten tracks you wanted?

I was just waiting for something to happen. The right people, the right time, the right sound.  Some material was spur-of-the-moment. Other songs had been lingering for years, waiting for their chance to bleed open. Once the initial party hosts were sorted, the rest of the guests were without question. There were no bouncers.

This group has a somewhat expansive and fluid roster. Who were you excited to work with this time out? Did you end up playing alongside your usual Vancouver friends, or did you seek out specific collaborators?

It’s always exciting to work with new people. The butterflies tingling in your stomach.  Wondering if they think your hair is cool enough.  Everyone brought their unique vision to the record. Pointy shoes and sneakers together like Pretty In Pink.

Pink Mountaintops, for all its overlap, is thought to be the more “experimental” version of your band Black Mountain—but more generally, do you see each project as a respite from the other? To which sides of your personality do they correspond? Is it always clear, with a new song, where it belongs in the grand scheme?

Things just happen. Not a lot of thought goes into who’s sleeping with who. It’s fun to have two lovers!

I saw Black Mountain headline a show in London with Dead Meadow and Wolf Parade back in 2005, and it felt like you had the room in a trance. Does that kind of audience connection come naturally, or is it a constant struggle?

There’s so many elements at work with a live performance that it’s impossible to gauge what will happen. That’s the beauty of it. Can’t predict the future and whether or not someone will get electrocuted or attacked by an escape panda bear.

“North Hollywood Microwaves” is a track like none other, inimitable with its skronky sax and unapologetically spoken lyrics—it feels destined to be a favorite on the new album. Where does its peculiar anxiety come from?

That song appeared magically out of thin air. There was no plan. Life in motion. People having fun together and throwing shit at the wall.

Finally, since you must harbor a deep knowledge of garage and psychedelic rock, I wonder if you could recommend an unjustly forgotten album that your fans might enjoy?

Deviants – Ptooff!

Miles Klee Verbally Spars With Literary Rival Adam Wilson

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Miles Klee is a little-known novelist. Recently, he decided his best career move would be to start a feud with another writer. This is his ongoing attempt to find (and destroy) the perfect rival.

If there’s one thing the publishing industry needs more of, it’s boring white dudes—so Klee reached out to Adam Wilson, an author much like himself, except for the fact that The Strand will actually admit to carrying his work. Two years after his debut novel, Flatscreen, was greeted with a resounding “whatever,” he has returned to inflict his short fiction on us with a new collection, What’s Important Is Feeling. The title must refer to his single identifiable emotion: spite.

KLEE

Adam Wilson, right off the bat I should admit I snubbed you on the first opportunity we had to really meet. This was at the AWP conference in Boston last year: some friends and I walked out of a blizzard into a bar and spotted you sitting, I believe, with Justin Taylor and Matt Bell, both of whom I already knew—so it was probably even odder that I hesitated a moment at your booth, long enough for all of us to look each other in the eyes and anticipate some standard fumbling attempt at human interaction, only to then keep walking as if I had merely paused to collect my thoughts. I trust you remember this moment as vividly as I do, and dwell in its penumbra of disappointment always?

 WILSON

Huh, I don’t remember this at all. Probably because 1) you’re not famous enough to be recognizable, nor face-tattooed, nor super buff, nor devastatingly handsome, nor a very attractive woman, nor, um, a non-white dude (of which there tends to be a lack at AWP.) So really, I think I snubbed you. Sorry.

KLEE

Apologetic already? This is too easy. Follow-up question: now that we’ve breached the writerly taboo of engaging in direct communication, how much do you think I’ll regret knowing you?

WILSON

Depends on how well you plan to get to know me, and how high your tolerance is for Boston sports fans. If your answers are “very well” and “not at all” then you’re in for a rough ride. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind Red Sox fans, and you’re a fan of whiskey, beer, and the website RapGenius, then we’ll probably get along just fine.

KLEE

Perish the thought. I won’t be so gauche as to ask what name your middle initial, Z., stands for, because I’m sure it’s not as supervillainish as I’m imagining, but I wonder how much longer you think you can hold out before a publisher forces you to start using it on book covers? It could mean the difference between “Pulitzer finalist” and “Pulitzer winner.”

WILSON

You’re assuming I’ll still have a publisher after this new book comes out. Didn’t you read my story about the guy who bites his best friend’s dick while watching American Idol? Or the one about the couple that uses a live lobster as a sex toy? Or the kid whose grandfather gives him a handjob? Forget the Pulitzer, I’m just hoping the Goodreads PC police don’t arrest me and sentence me to ten years of reading YA books.

KLEE

Do you think, after bros like us, people will ever write fiction about drugs again? I mean, we pretty much covered it, right? We may have a few more definitive things to say about sex, but I think it’s fair to say that the drug ship has sailed.

WILSON

They better not. Or at least not until some new drugs come along. I mean, where have all these advancements in science gotten us, huh? The day Pfizer comes out with a non-addictive synthetic cocaine that is actually good for you, is the day that … well … it’s the day that I buy a lot of it, and stop caring what other writers are writing about.

KLEE

I feel more apathetic when sober, really. According to your website, you’re chums with fellow author Garth Risk Hallberg, who made headlines last fall with a $2 million advance for a debut novel, City on Fire. But are you close enough to him to successfully poison his caviar? Also, should we set all our fiction in the 1970s until people are interested in anything else?

WILSON

Garth isn’t the caviar type. Besides, if I poisoned him, then how could I ride in the sidecar of his success? And yeah, I don’t know why people like the 70s so much. American Hustle was overrated, disco sucks, and the orange-brown color palette is totally terrible for pale dudes like me. It wasn’t a good time for baldness either. That said, Garth’s book is going to be fucking awesome.

KLEE

Let’s hope he approves of your sycophancy, then. To dwell on other writers for just a moment, which author are you shelved next to in bookstores? I mean, after they move all your unsold, un-thumbed copies from the “New Fiction” display? How often do you open one of their books and wipe a booger on one of the pages and close it again? (I’m directly adjacent to Chuck Klosterman, so I have occasion to do this quite often.)

WILSON

Well, there are a lot of other Wilsons, and I hate them all. Except for my dad, who I am sometimes shelved next to. I like that guy okay. All the other Wilsons can suck it.

KLEE

Since you’re being blunt I’ll strive to do the same—and you did broach the subject, so: you’re bald as fuck. Is that on purpose? Do you think it gives you gravitas? Shiny, reflective gravitas?

WILSON

No, it’s not on purpose, you dick. Is your next question how often do I shave it? Because then you will officially be every asshole I’ve ever met. Yeah, I went bald at nineteen. And yeah, I shave my head now so I don’t have a fucked-up-looking horseshoe on my head. Why is it any of your goddamned business?

KLEE

Mmm, smooth. I understand you did an event not long ago with Dan Josefson, who published a novel called That’s Not a Feeling. Your new short story collection is titled What’s Important Is Feeling. Would you care to make a public admission of plagiarism? (Also, why don’t you have a David Foster Wallace blurb?)

WILSON

What you have to understand, Miles, is that there’s this secret brotherhood of bald writers, and we’re taking over the world with our feelings, okay? Deal with it.

KLEE

Unless you have an appropriate GIF of that sentiment, I’m afraid I can’t. Brooklyn Magazine once named you one of the 50 funniest people in that borough. Why haven’t you made me laugh yet?

WILSON

Clearly your jealousy of my membership in the secret bald writers club has blinded you to my hilarity.

KLEE

Adam Wilson, you have been a boorish clod, this interview was a grave mistake, but I am just a little bit jealous of your résumé and blurbs—except for Gary Shteyngart’s, which reads like an admission that no one else responded to your emails. Would it be at all worthwhile for a struggling writer to kill you and steal your identity? Hypothetically speaking.

WILSON

Depends how willing they are to deal with assholes like you, Miles.

BlackBook Premiere: Inspired & The Sleep’s Soft-Rocking ‘Fly Low’

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Two lovely impulses animate the shimmering “Fly Low,” a brand-new track from the solo concept that became psychedelic San Diego indie four-piece Inspired & The Sleep, today available as a free download. The first is a gesture toward the beauty of imperfection—a piano just detuned enough to sound warmly lit by dusted sunlight, for example. The next is a preference for chunky, overdriven guitar riffs. These qualities here come together with a surprising, delicate modal brilliance that may sound familiar to a Menomena fan.

That gentle but well-weighted approach, the search for (and nailing of) an appropriately twitchy groove, falsetto yowls alongside ivory runs in the upper octaves: all make “Fly Low” the best bit of trippy soft rock we’ve heard in ages, not to mention the calling card of a band willing to experiment until they hit on a formula equal to their serious pop ambitions. On headphones, you’ll feel the thud of your blood even while wondering if your feet haven’t left the ground completely—a testament to how well guitarist Bryce Outcault, drummer Zachary Elliott, saxophonist Ryan Linvill, and guest vocalist Sara De La Isla have rounded out the insomniac lo-fi ponderings of Max Greenhalgh, originally the project’s lone member.

We’re quite certain you’ll be hearing more from the filled-out incarnation of Inspired & The Sleep, but for now, check out some of Greenhalgh’s spare and affectingly bedroom-ish early recordings. The only way you could get more intimate is by making out with him.

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Born Rivals No. 8: Emily Gould

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Miles Klee is a little-known novelist. Recently, he decided his best career move would be to start a feud with another writer. This is his ongoing attempt to find (and destroy) the perfect rival.

Frustrated with the palpable goodwill of several previous guests, Klee this week set his sights on a confirmed hater: Emily Gould. Readers will remember Ms. Gould from her tenure at Gawker, a New York Times Magazine cover story that reminded them to change their sheets, and a memoir about tattoos(?) titled And The Heart Says Whatever. Now mere months away from the release of her first novel, Friendship, she seemed likely to offer her unvarnished opinion of anything under the sun—whether I asked or not.     

KLEE

Emily Gould, I would like to start off by congratulating myself. You failed to extend me an invitation to be on your webseries “Cooking The Books,” perhaps because I had not published anything at that point and can barely make grilled cheese, but I was willing to overlook this shameful snub and invite you here today. How does it feel to not have the moral high ground?

GOULD

It feels … familiar? Anyway, you’re lucky we never met in a kitchen full of KNIVES and HOT OIL.  When and if we ever bring back “Cooking the Books,” though, watch out. I would love to have you as a “guest.”

KLEE

When not contemplating the logistics of cannibalism, you write books, but you also sell them via your e-book subscription service, Emily Books. Please explain why this does not violate U.S. antitrust laws, keeping in mind this interview may be cited in future lawsuits. (And how long did it take you to come up with that name?)

GOULD

Oh, you’re right, Miles. Emily Books, a feminist independent business, is totally more of a monopolist than, say, Amazon. (Fuck, this is hard, Miles. I feel like I’m on the Colbert Report and totally bombing? Powering through.) Emily has always struck me as a good name for a bookstore, I probably would have picked it even if it wasn’t my name. But yes, also: I love myself. I am a big fan of myself. How HORRIBLE and WRONG is that? A: not as horrible and wrong as women in this culture being constantly told that they’re not supposed to like themselves at all. Miles, what I’m getting at here is that you’re a sexist patriarchal chauvinist pig who should pretty much be hog-tied like the boss in 9 to 5.

KLEE

I’m hurt that you think I wouldn’t enjoy it. I have to say, as a fictionist, I’m a little annoyed that you’re moving from personal essays (And The Heart Says Whatever) into novel territory with your forthcoming book, Friendship. Couldn’t you have just called them My Diary Vols. I and II and leave it at that? The best part is, it leaves the door open for a trilogy.

GOULD

Touché. Not all of us can write weird experimental metafiction about … um, whatever it is your book is about. Some of us prefer to tell straightforward stories that people can relate to, not because we’re dumb and went to bad colleges but because … that’s a more honest … uh, something.

KLEE

That’s just the sort of articulate reply we’ve come to expect from a professional blogger like you.

GOULD

Zing! Wow, “blogger” as an insult. Your dated diss makes me nostalgic for the simpler days of the mid-aughts.

KLEE

On average, how many misandrist thoughts would you say flit through your brain per day? Are you hating men right this minute? When the ascendant femocracy finally and thoroughly subjugates the Y chromosome, will I be allowed to at least see my mom sometimes?

GOULD

No, you won’t be able to see your mom … because you’ll be dead. We’ll have harvested your sperm and we’ll use it to only have female children. Duh!

KLEE

As long as my genetic goo is the lifeblood of your dystopia, I guess that’s OK. But on the subject of fantasy: before we began this exchange, you were explaining Vampire Academy, a series of young-adult romance books set to become a lucrative Hollywood franchise. I wonder if we could take a moment to pitch our own YA titles with an eye toward film rights—then we can see which idea James Frey steals first. Mine is called Angel Camp. It’s about a girl chosen to become one of God’s messengers after her parents are brutally murdered by human secularists, but first she’ll have to face a challenge of Biblical proportions: making friends at a sleepaway camp for seraphim-in-training. Will she survive this hell and attain the kingdom of heaven? We’ll need at least 6,000 pages of clunky exposition to find out. (Your turn.)

GOULD

I could cheat and pitch you the plot of my 2006 YA novel Hex Education, but I can’t actually remember it.  Angels are so over, Miles. Angels flopped in 2011. I think the new angels were supposed to be mermaids for a while. I’m not up to speed. It’s possible we’re on centaurs now. My novel is about a feisty female centaur who’s dealing with all the ordinary pressures of high school plus, unfortunately, leukemia. She’s never had a close relationship because … well, who would want deal with her possible—let’s face it, likely—early demise? Better to be alone. But that all changes when a new boy moves to her town who’s unlike anyone she’s ever met. Boy centaur, that is. And he also has cancer, or maybe not. This novel is called The Fault in our Centaurs.

KLEE

I can hear the corporate-indie soundtrack already. Not to sound neurotic about my abilities here, but in the role of interviewer, would you say I am better than, inferior to, or about the same as Jimmy Kimmel? Also, as an interviewee, how do you feel you stack up to Stevie Nicks?

GOULD

I can’t compare you to Jimmy Kimmel because I had the memory of that interview excised from my brain via years of expensive hypnotherapy. (JK. But if I could afford years of expensive hypnotherapy I would do that.)  Regardless it’s tough to make that comparison because fighting in a google doc is a lot easier than fighting on live TV. So my answer is: (?) As an interviewee, and just in general, I will never remotely come close to Stevie. Did you see this? “I’ve been in a famous band for a very long time and because of that I’ve taken very good care of myself, except for the eight years I was on Klonopin and I got really fat.” Who can compete with that?!

KLEE

Nobody participating in this conversation, that’s for sure. Assuming you didn’t write your own Wikipedia page—I do seem to recall some embarrassment about the photo—when did you first notice you had one? Is there anything particularly galling or offensive on there? I’m not saying I vandalized it, I just want to be prepared when I do.

GOULD

Oh, I have a Wikipedia page? Golly, lil ole me? I wouldn’t know anything about that bc I never ever google myself. I just birdwatch and wait for the muse. Sigh, OK, actually? I asked my editor to edit to reflect the fact that I have a new book coming out, and she did. I hope that’s OK, Jimmy Wales. The fact that there’s even a subheading for “criticism” is sexist. (Seriously.)

KLEE

If you’re going to get serious on me, I may as well ask this: you’ve spoken on not a few literary panels and the like; who is the person you hate most that you could still stand to share a stage with?

GOULD

You! Um, I don’t know. I think it would be fun although adrenalin-depleting to share a stage with Katie Roiphe. Hi Katie when you read this four years from now because that’s how long it takes you to notice things that have happened on the Internet!

KLEE

Be honest: are those n+1 parties ever actually fun, or is it just a bunch of unpaid interns figuring out how they’re going to afford cocaine that night? (Just kidding, I know that any twentysomething who can afford to work for free in New York has plenty of prescription meds to fall back on.)

GOULD

They’re not fun for me but that’s because I generally only like parties that take place in a private karaoke room or inside my own apartment. Also as someone who worked a paying job, a paid internship and an unpaid internship during college in NYC I resemble and resent your remark. Also, cocaine is unfashionable again, rave drugs and hallucinogens are back, it’s part of 90’s nostalgia. PLUR, Miles.

KLEE

I despise you for making me look up that acronym, but not as much as I despise myself for remembering that it’s not the first time I’ve had to. Can you please list three topics or concepts that people need to immediately stop writing about?

GOULD

1. Miles Klee
2. “the death of publishing/print/the novel”
3. “The internet is killing our creativity/attention span/[I forget the other ones]”

 KLEE

Emily Gould, you have been as prickly and brutalizing as everyone on email backchannels says you are. Care to lob any final insults? Leave it all on the field.

 GOULD

This has been a disgusting experience. I wish you the worst of luck in all your endeavors. Um … may all your teeth fall out, except one in which you have a toothache! Ptoo!

Acting Is A Horrible Business: Stewart & McKellen’s ‘Waiting For Godot’

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Quitting acting ranks among the best decisions I have ever made. This point was forcefully driven home by watching Sir Ian McKellen, one of the most decorated and celebrated men to ever tread the boards, gnawing on a chicken bone that had been dropped on the stage at the Cort Theatre in the latest popular production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Here was a 74-year-old man, a knight, for god’s sake, eating food off the floor. For laughs. For a living! How much dignity is there in a job that calls for you to shed all dignity? Somehow, quite a lot.

McKellen and his co-star, 73-year-old Patrick Stewart, are not the men I picture when I read Beckett’s play. For whatever reason, I see Estragon and Vladimir as young or middle-aged drones, with something of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about them, suspended in that gray purgatory between nameless birth and anonymous death. To position them closer to the end, as any staging with older men does, is to further bleaken an already dark, stark, elemental work. In 1955, Beckett himself mocked the need to impose a particular reading on his masterpiece, saying, “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.” But whether they like it or not, the people framing his infamous lines are forced to make practical choices.

Take, for example, Shuler Hensley and Billy Cudrup, who played the supporting parts of Pozzo and Lucky. The characters are, quite evidently, a cruel slave-owner and broken slave, and, perhaps because Hensley is a native of Georgia, the subjugation is of a Deep Southern, antebellum flavor. Though with a text that’s so stripped-down, you don’t exactly need a villain out of Django Unchained to get your point across: the language, the setting, and the hopelessness of the lead performers communicate the wasteland—all that’s left is to break up the monotony, as Beckett remarked. Will stereotypes get the job done? Maybe, with the right audience.

Cudrup has just one long speech, a modernist show-stopper, where he has to walk the line between intelligible rambling and highbrow bullshit, all the while suggesting that human intelligence is basically a parlor trick. That would be difficult enough were he not also tasked with idly dancing around at the end of a noose and carrying two suitcases (or lying comatose) for the entirety of his periods onstage. To Beckett, the actor truly was a prop, and his need for complex or allegorical motivation a baffling problem of vanity. People lack the integrity of words.

Lately, with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the most admired character actor of his age, we’ve begun to ask once more how much we expect from dramatic performers, and how much they ought to be admired—or pitied—for their sacrifice. I don’t think we ought to worship them for their artistry, per se, but we might respect and acknowledge how thankless the most prestigious gigs in the business really are, whether it’s an underfunded indie film or a brutal Broadway run. Having only ever done student musicals and amateur improv, I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to be the one up there in the spotlight. Would you?

Anatomy of a Television Murder: The Most Boring Star Burns Twice As Long

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As I settle in with my wife and dogs and blankets and a hot toddy on a cold January night to screen the series premiere of HBO’s superbly marketed True Detective, the question cannot fail to occur to me: exactly how many more elegantly creepy, slow-burning, premium cable murder mysteries am I going to watch? Sometimes it feels as there is no other form of entertainment.

The formula of somber palette plus grisly, calm-shattering crime is hardly new: the 1985 BBC drama Edge of Darkness, a paranoid nuclear-political thriller starring the late Bob Peck, whom most would recognize as the game warden Muldoon in Jurassic Park, is a prime early example. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks remains the strangest, wittiest incarnation. And today we have popular, Netflix-ready titles like the Red Riding trilogy, Top of the Lake, and The Fall to choose from. (If the series takes place in an Anglophone country with an even starker, grayer landscape than can be found between American shores, so much the better).

All these narratives ask us to make one inflexible and rather bourgeois assumption: that the unraveling of the initial thorny plot can only be set in motion by a dogged, intelligent outsider, whose investigation will inevitably expose a wider scourge of corruption and moral indifference directly tied to the provincial landscape. The metropolitan detective will find that their most appalling views about human nature are not nearly cynical enough to equal the circumstances, not when they’re paddling upstream into what’s clearly Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the age of globalization, the exurbs shall have to stand in for the jungle.

Do we take solace in the idea of this city-born, colonialist hero venturing into the backwoods to correct whatever primitive form of justice they adhere to in that half-modernized region? And could it be that we enjoy the glacial, withholding pace and humorless atmosphere of these shows much the same way we claim to appreciate #Longreads and other appropriately “serious” diversions? It’s striking how even Hannibal and Sherlock, two crime dramas given to knowing winks and delicious dramatic ironies, strive to burn at the coldest possible temperature, lest they begin to resemble the guilty pleasures those personalities once were.

But the murder mystery, as we know, has always been lurid pulp entertainment, from the titillating Gothic masterpieces of the Age of Enlightenment to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, the 1929 noir novel that most clearly anticipates the one-detective-against-a-whole-town model that has come to dominate television lately. Hammett’s Continental Op is no one sexy—a nameless, unpleasant, ugly private eye—and he plays all his enemies against one another with dazzling finesse, always five steps ahead of the reader. Red Harvest, like all the finest works in its genre, is a page-turner; the speed at which one devours it is a major source of fun. The same can be true of a more psychologically intricate plot: the spidery romans durs of French writers like Georges Simenon and Pascal Garnier, not to mention Crime and Punishment, keep us in a morbid suspense despite their foregone conclusions.

The dreary cop series have cultivated that same addicting quality, the need to know what happens next, to binge-watch, to push forward “one more episode,” but mainly through the force of absence and sorrow. Eastbound & Down packs an entire season of entertainment into thirty minutes, but The Killing takes a season to go anywhere. While a single page of Dostoevsky can fractally inform you what the rest of the book is about, a single wordless scene in a drifting, hour-long episode of forensic bafflement and administrative logjams can be a confounding puzzle to the keenest viewer. When we cut away from such an encounter, we’re apt to ask ourselves, possibly in a slight panic, what we were meant to glean from what we have just seen. Raymond Chandler couldn’t necessarily keep the threads of his mysteries straight, but at least they were always taut.

This neurosis, taken alongside our tendency to identify with the educated and complex protagonist willing to challenge rustic or suburban savagery, and our constant touting of “nuanced” characters and “realistic” detail, amounts to a fairly damning conclusion: we love these gloomy shows in part because TV has replaced film as high art, so who’d be caught watching the lowbrow stuff anymore? We watch to atone for our poor attention spans, and for those many years we spent guffawing at caricaturist sitcoms. We watch because this stuff openly telegraphs—in its colors, its dialogue, its scope and serenity and cinematography—that it is important. And so, most of all, we watch because we’re afraid of looking stupid.

Just remember, if the mood becomes too bleak: there are always cartoons on another channel.

The 2013 Books You Can Officially Shut Up About Now

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The end of the year has long been a repository for listicles designed to carry websites through dark days of slow news, slack productivity, and slim page view stats. The literary industry is as susceptible to such reflective rankings as any, perhaps more so, since most of the people who still read are very eager to prove that they do. Problem is, the same five already overexposed books end up in every “best of” feature. Here they are again—for the last time, we hope.

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TENTH OF DECEMBER, George Saunders

Up till 2013, George Saunders was a writer’s writer, producing the stunning debut short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and the mostly great followups Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation. But all it took was one salivating New York Times feature on his latest to turn him from a sort-of-unknown author into someone your mother-in-law was asking you about. It doesn’t help that the book is his first true dud: it contains a personal nadir in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” based on a dream and a decade in the making, and the best thing in here, “Sticks,” is a leftover from his early, dazzling madness.

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THE CIRCLE, Dave Eggers

Where Saunders struggles for a while to get his stuff together, and has never produced a novel he considers publishable, Eggers is churning fiction out at a suspiciously hacky rate, with none of the modesty. While the man himself was recently indicted for his “smarmy” persona, it was his cautionary tale about Silicon Valley, an object of instant and unplanned obsolescence, that we wished would go away. At one point, the author of a Facebook memoir accused him of plagiarizing her work, and at others Eggers sounded disgusted with the very concept of researching his topic. Better to stick with William Gibson, I think.

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THE FLAMETHROWERS, Rachel Kushner

This is probably a perfectly readable book, with plenty of non-tortuous sentences. Then again, outside of a few choice excerpts and comments from angry Goodreads users, I’ll never know for sure. The glowing reviews for this one were simultaneously the vaguest and most hyperbolic in memory, as if the book were a foreign film the critic had fallen asleep watching in an Ambien haze on a transatlantic flight. Also, if we may express a personal prejudice: we’re sick of 1970s-set stories, or any other historically-minded art, where the time period is the main character. Blaming Mad Men for that one.

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SPEEDBOAT, Renata Adler

Well, well, a book about the 1970s that’s actually from the 1970s. An oblique and beguiling novel that, with its pretty reissue from New York Review of Books, instantly became the coolest thing to get spotted reading on the L train. It’s a wonderful, acid book, one a friend accurately compared to a meal of mustard packets, but its overnight, Internet-fueled success among a younger generation unfamiliar with Adler’s career had an air of herd behavior to it: one had the dreary sense that more people just bought a copy for their shelves (or a selfie) than actually cracked the spine in rapt attention.

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THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Surely the rankest fog of horrid buzz this year surrounded another book not from our era. The jazz-age standard, often cited as a favorite by people who were forced to pretend to understand it in ninth grade, only to scorn the printed word forevermore, came in for extra scrutiny as fans of Baz Luhrmann carried it around, cover visible, to prep for his garish adaptation. We’ll never know how many of them made it to the green light, but judging how much they enjoyed getting dolled up in straw boater hats and flapper dresses for the sort of theme parties Fitzgerald mocks, we’re guessing not much of it sank in.

Born Rivals No. 7: Jen Doll

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Miles Klee is a little-known novelist. Recently, he decided his best career move would be to start a feud with another writer. This is his ongoing attempt to find (and destroy) the perfect rival.

In a city of cutthroat bloggers, Jen Doll has spilled more blood than most, writing for The Atlantic, The Village Voice, Vulture, Gothamist, and that last bastion of faded relevance, The New York TImes Book Review. Next spring will see the release of her memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Doll was hesitant to give this interview, concerned that she might come off as a “jerk,” but deep down she knew that she always does.

Jen Doll, your first book is coming out next spring, so obviously the question on everyone’s mind is: what the hell are you writing now? Haven’t you rested on your laurels long enough? For shame.
As a matter of fact, I am hard at work (soft at work?) on another book proposal, but I can’t discuss it because I’m afraid you’ll steal it (or, really, I can’t talk about it for fear of being mocked heartlessly and made a public fool of). In the meantime, I am writing various things for various nice people at websites and print publications and so forth, and perfecting my Christmas list, and thinking. Lots of thinking.

Speaking of Save the Date, though, may I inquire as to how many times I’m thanked in the acknowledgements? Or, to put it another way, are you appropriately grateful to know me?
Well, this is awkward. Miles, I am sorry to have to remind you that you did not invite me to your wedding, and I really think that even though you didn’t know me then, you should have had better foresight, because duh. Now for a secret that I think you already know and therefore is not a secret at all: One of the book’s chapters does include a wedding at which you were also present, and a person described as part of “a couple I hadn’t met” is, in fact, you. (Now that we’ve met, I would describe you differently, but one can’t change the past.) In related news, there’s still time to update my acknowledgments, so if you send me something nice that I’ve requested on my Christmas list, maybe I can change the future.

Maybe I’ll just give back that Raymond Chandler novel I had no intention of returning. Can you give us a rough estimate of how many bottles of white wine were consumed as part of the creative process? What did the cheapest one taste like?
I completely forgot about that Chandler novel! Thief! Given that the book covers my life in wedding guest attendance from the age of eight until very recently, and yet, I only started drinking last week, I would say half a glass which I swished and spit, though the only way you’d believe that is if you were drunk. (I just tried to estimate actual number of bottles and blacked out.) Sweat and desperation.

On the topic of desperation, here’s a hypothetical for you: we attend the same literary conference, which happens to be held on a cruise ship. (We wouldn’t normally get on a cruise ship, but it was all expenses paid because we’re both so famous and successful.) The ship sinks, though, and we’re cast adrift on a life raft together. The emergency supplies include a pencil and waterproof sheet of paper. Would you use them to write out a heartrending confession that will likely be lost to the history, even if I had already suggested playing MASH?
Am I confessing to your murder? If so, I will thank you in the acknowledgments for this great idea for a second book.

I think there’s a Hitchcock film about that, but Netflix has it listed as a “Very Long Wait.” Right now I would like to shift gears and gloat about being a writer of fiction, which is not beholden to real life. Doesn’t it irritate you, having to churn out these truthful, depressing, magaziney pieces full of junk that actually happened and whatnot? Because they’re certainly irritating to read.
Yes! Fortunately, when I talk to my mother about how she and her friends might be horrified by some of my real-life wedding antics should they read my book (I am actually rather worried about this, horrifying people), she keeps saying, Oh, I’ll just tell them you made it up, and I’m like, NO, STOP SAYING THAT. THE BOOK IS TRUE, MOM. STOP TRYING TO RUIN ME. I mean, though, with fiction, man … you actually have to make stuff up. Isn’t that difficult? Don’t you just feel like giving up?

Only when I’m awake. Since you’re so disgustingly prolific, my largest concern about signing on as your opposite number is that you’ll die of a heart attack in the next three years, and then I won’t have anyone to align myself against. Would I have to take out an insurance policy on our rivalry?
Since it is, in fact, very important to have a good nemesis, I suppose I shall have to live. For you, Miles. Also I’ll make some doctor’s appointments to take advantage of the health insurance I am paying for that will slowly but surely make me broke. You should probably take care of yourself, too. Eat a little something now and again. Do some yogic breathing. You know.

If we could, I’d like to take a stab at passive-aggressively blurbing each other’s work. I’ll go first: “Welp, Jen Doll has done it again. Just when you think it’s safe to skimmingly run your eyes over some text, here she comes to charge you $25.95 for it. And how! I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t put this book down—I think it had model airplane glue on it or something.” OK, your turn.
dajdlkafdlajkd;fajkld;jaldjflasdfjkaljdf! — Jen Doll

No, but really, Miles, you’re very talented. And in Canada, the book is $28.95.

If you’re going to wrong-foot me with flattery, you’ll have to praise my looks. You live in Brooklyn, which as I understand it is where all writers are from. What’s your favorite place in the borough to schmooze with fellow literary types? I want to know so I can be sure to avoid it.
I mostly just stay in my own apartment until dusk, then scurry out to buy overpriced cheese at the fancy food store, or maybe I go to the gym to watch Law & Order SVU on the elliptical TVs. Of course, each of these places is chock-full of literary types. Chock-full. How’s Upper Manhattan these days, anyway?

The yuppies are coming. This new bistro on 121st and Amsterdam brought us homemade black currant and ginger gummi bears with the check. I aspire to be a busboy there someday, but I’m not getting my hopes up. What’s your plan for when you burn out?
What this next book presupposes is that I already have.

This may touch a nerve, so I’d better say it: You used to date a very close friend of mine, and my wife and I went on a couple of double dates with you. Why couldn’t you have stayed together, so that the four of us might cultivate a cruel, harrowing, Edward Albee-like interdependency?
Look, that time we all ate at that nouveau tapas restaurant in Brooklyn among the literati and then you stole my Raymond Chandler novel was wonderful and precious and I will always have the fondest of memories of that other time I … actually I don’t remember any of this, what are you talking about? No, but really. I don’t know. If Salman and I could have made it work, well… Let’s just say we all have our regrets.

Jen Doll, thank you for involving yourself in this appalling exercise and being a model of perfect candor. Or sarcasm. Who really knows, with you. Care to slag off anyone else in publishing before you go?
I really think we should hate on some people besides Jonathan Franzen, aren’t we supposed to be creative? And, oh God, if I have to hear one more thing about positive vs. negative reviews I shall be forced to drink as many bottles of wine as I did in the writing of my first book. Which will probably happen anyway, FYI.

Norway May Demolish Brutalist Buildings With Picasso Murals

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Over in Oslo, Norway, debate is raging about what to do with some brutalist architecture damaged by a car bomb during Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attack of July 11. The conventional wisdom says to tear the buildings down to make way for something new, but there’s a catch: the current structures are homes to murals by Pablo Picasso—his first works executed in concrete, no less. What is the educated world to think!

Even the proposed compromise, which would involve “disassembling” Picasso’s works and putting them back together somewhere else, brick by brick, has come under fire, since the artist created them in accordance with their current location. Art history nerds know that context is king—would you put the Mona Lisa somewhere other than a cramped room of The Louvre where the collective body odor was enough to make you pass out? Don’t be ridiculous.

What’s lost in the discussion about preserving pivotal art from one of the 20th century’s masters, however, is the building itself. Europe is all about demolishing these big, boxy, menacing, state-funded constructions that popped up fifty years ago—enough, I say. Just because you think it looks ugly now doesn’t mean people in the distant future won’t appreciate it. When the Parthenon started to show a little wear and tear, did the Greeks raze it to the ground? Architects are artists too, you know.

Image via Art World Daily