Weekend Reading

Critical Distance, Pulp Fiction, Blatant Nonsense, and Fun at Parties

For this season of atonement, works by Vinson Cunningham, Joe Kloc, Devendra Banhart, and Andrew Norman Wilson

“Jeremy O. Harris, Before and After Slave Play by Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker

As a theater critic for The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham has been writing about the work of Jeremy O. Harris, whose Slave Play set the record for Tony nominations in 2020 even though it did not win an award, for almost as long as there’s been work to write about. For much of that time, however, he’s done his best to avoid meeting the playwright. “Usually, when you go to a play as a critic, you’re trying not to meet anybody involved with the thing. Often you only realize much later, ‘Oh, that person I saw is the playwright,’” he told The Fine Print. “But Jeremy is very noticeable as a person. He’s six-foot-five and often wears his hair in a big Afro.” Still, Cunningham kept a critical distance. When his editor, David Haglund, or the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, would suggest that Harris might make for a good profile subject, he hesitated. “I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to write about somebody that I had written reviews of before. I’ve liked his work, but I still didn’t know if I wanted to cross that line into reporting on him,” he said. “But then, toward the beginning of the pandemic — when we were just trying to figure out how you could even do a profile and how to fill the magazine, frankly — he was brought back up, and I said, sure, I’d try it.”

Cunningham soon discovered that crossing the critic-reporter divide wouldn’t be the only new dynamic. “One of the weird things about this piece, as opposed to other profiles I’ve done, is it’s somebody who’s roughly my age,” he said. “Going around with Tracy Morgan, it’s not like you’re going to run into somebody that you both know.” One bit of reporting is sourced to “several friends.” “When people that you know are part of a piece that you’re working on, it’s very strange,” he added.

It’s not just generational, it’s professional. “Not only does Jeremy talk to journalists and is friends with journalists — he’s friends with a lot of people that I’m friends with who are journalists — but he’s also kind of a member of the media,” Cunningham noted. Harris is a contributor to GQ and Harper’s Bazaar and holds the masthead title of “Consigliere” at Interview. “One thing I didn’t get into in the piece: When he was living in Los Angeles before he ever started writing plays, one thing that he tried was film criticism,” he said. “I think you can still find some of those pieces.”

Harris is a media subject even more frequently than a contributor. “In the same way that Twitter was part of the piece and his tweets are inevitably a part of the substance of the life that you’re trying to capture, so too of course, he’s gonna give quotes to this or that person,” Cunningham said. “I very early on had to give up any idea that this person wasn’t going to appear in the media until I unveiled this. He’s not that kind of person.” So Cunningham leaned into it by shadowing Harris to photoshoots for other magazines. “Town & Country didn’t mind. But I did go to another shoot which I actually did not mention,” he said — not because the other magazine was upset, he clarified, but because if he included everything he had, the nearly 9,000-word-long piece would have reached 12,000. “He did a shoot and he wrote an essay for Harper’s Bazaar. He invited me to that and I went and — very politely, no hard feelings at all — in the middle of that somebody pulled me aside and was like, ‘Actually, we just got a call from the editor-in-chief and you just can’t be here.’”

Cunningham plucked away at the profile for three years, changing its shape over time. “At first, I’m like, ‘I want it to feel like a short story: I want it to feel like a story about an artist who just got super famous and is wondering what that feels like for the rest of his career. And then, the whole world falls down. He’s stuck in this apartment in London, and he can’t focus on his writing and his deadlines. How does that play out?’” he said. “Later on, I was like, ‘Maybe it’s an indie documentary with no talking heads.’ You’ll notice that there aren’t very many secondary interviews. So even the people that I talked to, I tried to fold that into the narrative.”

In service of that momentum, he checked his critic’s instincts, allowing Harris to speak for his work. “One of the things that I wanted to do with this piece was to do less of my own essayistic critical work,” he said. “There’s a kind of profile that’s often written by somebody who’s also a critic where they break off and they do criticism real quick. They say he’s like this, he’s like that, and they draw all these comparisons and make intertextual references that we usually think of as the province of criticism. So I’m like, ‘If I want to make this mostly in scene, not do that thing, and have it really flow like a documentary, then I have to put that work on the person.’”

Cunningham never hit a point on his own where he felt like he was ready to say he was done. That came from above. “Once it became clear to me and to my editor that this was not going to be a one-year-in-pandemic piece, which would have probably been okay without a peg, then I did start looking for pegs. There were times when he might have had a play. Even as recently as this year, he was going to do one of his plays that’s mentioned in the piece that was pushed back and back and back,” he said. “At a certain point, you’re working on something for that long, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, just finish it. Why don’t you just finish it?’” He added, “This piece is totally a product of an institution, The New Yorker, that has a lot of patience.”

“The Golden Fleece” by Joe Kloc in Harper’s

Joe Kloc wasn’t doing it for the story. He was just obsessed. “Obviously, when I called them, I didn’t intend to write the story or anything, but one thing led to another,” he told The Fine Print. It started algorithmically with a YouTube video of an elderly man named Gary Lovisi, who was surprised to discover that the Barnes & Noble in Paramus, New Jersey, was selling used and rare books. Kloc called the man and ended up at the southern Brooklyn home Lovisi shares with Lucille Cali, his wife, whom he met when they both worked at the post office. “I was thinking there could be a funny story about Barnes & Noble having these weird rogue used bookseller shops,” Kloc said. “But then, I just fell down the rabbit hole with them.” The couple showed off their immense collection of pulp novels and magazines. They told Kloc about their greatest flea market find ever: a copy of the first issue of Golden Fleece Historical Adventure, from 1938, which survived a fire and a flood while every other scrap around it was destroyed. When Lovisi went to show Kloc the artifact, he found it had disappeared. “Maybe it was just that kind of winter,” Kloc said, “but I was completely committed to trying to find it.”

The all-consuming quest carried Kloc to bookshops in exotic places like Staten Island and Maryland. “There comes a point where if the guy in the basement of a mystery bookstore tells you you have to go to Maryland, you just gotta go,” he explained. Searching for the Golden Fleece became something of a hobby, though it bled over into his day job as a senior editor at Harper’s. “Before I was even really seriously considering trying to write anything about it, I was walking around the office being like, ‘Guys, I have to find the Golden Fleece,’” he said. “Even doing ridiculous things, like I asked [president and publisher] Rick [MacArthur] to ask Art Spiegelman if he knew of any Golden Fleeces in the New York area that might be the one in question. He did, and I guess Art said no.”

Eventually, Kloc had to admit he was writing something. “I think Lucille, pretty early on, picked up that I was not going to be writing a straightforward general interest piece about pulp collecting,” he said. “I think Gary probably still is mystified why I did it. He would say, ‘What are you doing? What is this story?’ And I would just be like, ‘Gary, this, you and me, this is the story.’” He knew that, without a draft, other editors would have as hard a time getting what he was going for as Lovisi did. “I don’t think you could pitch something like this. What would you say?” he asked. “I’m honestly quite surprised that it exists in a magazine.”

But he owed people words, and this was all he could think about. “Looking for the Golden Fleece was not procrastination, but turning it into a story was definitely procrastination,” he said. He handed a draft of a story about his search to Christopher Beha, who announced his resignation as editor of Harper’s on Thursday, a little over a year after returning from a six-month book leave. “There was a different thing I was supposed to be working on, so I think Chris said something like, ‘Are you going to hand me an entirely different story?’” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sorry, I have no choice. This is just where I’m at now.’”

Stylistically, the story was a departure for Kloc. “I wasn’t thinking that I would try to write it in a pulpy way. It’s not entirely a voice I feel super comfortable with, because I’m not really well-read in that genre and it’s not how I’ve written other stories,” he said. “I had to wind myself up to just kind of embarrass myself and do it.” The piece appears to be littered with pastiches of pulpy noirs, but Kloc claims some of the most obvious ones weren’t intentional. Opening with puttering around at home with the cats, for instance, can only be an homage to Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, right? “A lot of people have said that. I swear to God, I was not aware of that. That’s just an odd, weird coincidence, but I’m very happy that that coincidence exists,” Kloc said. “I have to watch that. I still haven’t watched it or read it.”

Anyway, it wasn’t Lovisi and Cali’s pulps that got Kloc hooked on the story. “The most important thing was the friendship with them,” he said. “I’m hoping to do a bigger project with Gary and Lucille about the post office and about their relationship.”

“Devendra Banhart,” How Long Gone

Journalists don’t like to be lied to, most of the time. When the artifice of information delivery falls away, and the entertainment aspect of a celebrity interview takes the fore, however, a blatantly surrealist touch on the part of the subject (not the interviewer) can make something that’s otherwise worthless merit a bit of semi-distracted, casually whimsical attention. Like when Bob Dylan waves around a giant light bulb at a press conference near the beginning of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. “What’s the lightbulb for? I thought you’d ask me that! I always carry lightbulbs,” he obliges. “My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.” Musician and artist Devendra Banhart’s nonsense poem of an interview on this nonsense poem of a podcast is proof that everybody involved understands this.

Banhart is a pescatarian who is considering getting back into meat. “The thing is that we’re so close to being able to buy the lab-grown stuff. There’s a restaurant in San Francisco and one in DC that serves it. And, from a Buddhist perspective, that’s even better than eating vegetables because nothing is harmed. A thousand billion insects are killed when I’m trying to eat my salad, but I guess with my lab-grown chicken I’m good to go,” he says, perfectly reasonably. “Also, I long for the impossible dolphin or human. All that stuff, we can try it,” he adds. “Although it’s the suffering that I like, so I would still have a dolphin, a real one, there that I could just stab and kill because the flavor is there in the suffering.” He later admits his lack of culinary expertise. ”What I do is I just throw the ghee away and I just keep the bottle. That’s how bad of a chef I am,” he says. “I’ll crack the egg and just eat the shell.”

As a bonus, the episode starts with a fun little party report from Puck and Paris Review parties. (“I lasted thirty minutes, which is as long as you need to spend at any party.”)

 “An Evening with Andrew Norman Wilson” at The Museum of Modern Art

Andrew Norman Wilson is fun at parties. He’ll tell you about the time when Willem Dafoe accidentally showed him a nude photo of his wife and about his uncle’s enthusiasm for literary tugboat tours of Philadelphia. He’s fun at museums, too. On Monday evening, he’ll show video art he’s made in the last eight years at MoMA. (He’s already got a piece playing on the museum’s second floor.) The videos all started with sound or music. “I’m showing a re-edit of a U2 video I was commissioned to make earlier this year. It’s re-edited because I’ve slowed down the footage, won’t be backing it with the U2 song, and instead will have my pianist play along live to it,” he told The Fine Print. “Then there are two Oneohtrix Point Never videos that I’m running around like crazy this week to finish, and those will be shown in draft form, but with OPN’s music, no replacement. The pianist will be playing an introductory performance of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ in his impressionistic style.”

Is Wilson leaving all the performance obligations to the pianist? “I’m required to do a Q&A. I tried to fight it, but I have to be out there for that,” he said. “I’m gonna be exhausted by Monday because I have to edit the OPN videos all weekend, so that’s definitely going to color the Q&A.” He went plenty theatrical for his show’s Instagram flier, which features him in a bright orange suit. “The orange suit from Dumb and Dumber is my senior prom photo,” he explained. “I had a Harry to my Lloyd, who’s not in that photograph just because I didn’t want to confuse things.”

Wilson is planning to visit the Ed Ruscha exhibit on the museum’s sixth floor on Monday. The painter wasn’t a formative influence for him, but they’ve occasionally drawn on resonances from the same source. “I did a bit of thinking about his work while living in Los Angeles,” Wilson said. “I love that city and I love it as a singular urban experience bound up with singular histories and current realities. It’s still the strangest city I’ve ever been to and I’ve lived there for five years total.” Ruscha has tried to locate his huge paintings far from the sort of digital art Wilson practices, somewhere outside of history. “Compare this barn picture to a multimedia, wraparound, video-motion graphic, Times Square extravaganza experience, and you’ll see how I feel about my work fitting into contemporary electronic culture,” he once told an interviewer. “I am in the stone age.”