At the far end of my laptop’s windows is a virtual pile of things to read: all seventy-something articles, hidden in a Safari browser. Either they were written by someone I have read before, had arresting graphic art, or had a good title. This one from Harper’s I found appetizing: David Wong Louie’s “Eat, Memory”. I remember reading this at night at a coffee shop, bringing me to tears and pining for someone, anyone, to discuss this with.
While reading this I’m surprised I have this expectation that it will have a good ending – maybe because most memoirs usually do? But Wong wrote the truth rather ruthlessly – with the ending verging on the perverse. His account was clear-eyed about the slow, torturous journey of a gourmand with throat cancer. (Looking for some redemption, I googled the author for some hope, only to know he passed away five years ago, maybe within the year when he wrote this.)
I was a hundred percent certain that I read an essay by the writer Bryan Washington about his visit (as a black person!) in Tokyo’s seedy bars, and I am 90 percent certain it’s in Popula because of the content and the style of writing – closer to a series of decorous fragments than a complete, closed narrative – but it’s not there. I’ve entered different permutations of the keywords I could think of to look for it, and I’m close to realizing, after turning every single (virtual) shelf and cabinet upside down, that maybe I lost it – until I found it in a magazine called Catapult. Check it out.
Another example of fine writing from Harper’s is by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, author of the hallowed, groundbreaking Findings column, a selection of bizarre facts parsed and culled to become a fantastic written collage. In Island Time Kroll-Zaidi goes to Maine during the off-season with a mission: “Against my better judgment I undertake to write about the island, but getting beyond the historical society butter churns to tell the subtle, intimate stories of the community would require endless, painstaking work. On the other hand, I could on the slimmest pretext and with the vaguest purpose go bumble around John Travolta’s house (“Nineties journalism,” a friend says). Simply put: a mix of writerly sleuthing and snooping, cheekily subtitled Tides, teens, Travolta.
Charles McGrath writes at the New Yorker about a friend and a spontaneous dare to jump off a bridge to dive in a river. What I love the most about this is the part where time slows mid-dive to give way to an elaborate recollection of that moment of free fall, of the emotions that swelled and overwhelmed the author, of the necessity of danger to feel alive, only to make room for the revelation: his dear friend had died of cancer. The logic behind withholding this fact, and the technique to pull this off is masterful: McGrath did this very carefully, and he did this with the right amount of restraint, as a little too more and it will bore the reader, and a little less and it wouldn’t land as a thud. It’s a bittersweet account, yes, but not overly dramatic as one would expect when reading about cancer, making it a worthwhile read.
Ring of Fire, my third entry from Harper’s, is a timely read in a country that has been plagued by spam texts from casinos and online shopping ads. The version in Jordan Kisner’s essay is from an unknown caller with preachy voice who tells her cryptic exhortations and a clear call-to-action: press 1 to proceed. In lucid paragraphs, she was able to stitch the phenomenon of televangelism and the zeitgeist of the year that is 2020, with our affinity for the mystical and clairvoyant (think horoscopes, crystals, predictions and pseudoscience) amid an apocalyptic world shaken by the climate crisis and the onset of Covid-19. The ending was so sudden (and slightly weak) that I had to check for the next pages twice.
But really, I’m piqued by the messages – I would have panicked right there and then on the phone:
"There is someone you must rebuke that is attacking you. Press the numerical button 1 now; press 1 now. There is an individual causing this situation that you must rebuke; press 1, press 1. You must rebuke the snake that is controlling the person to cause this mess; press 1. It has even been affecting people in your household. Press 1 now; press 1."