Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Sick daze

Well, I got it. Or it got me. Whatever. It’s my turn. For Covid, that is. 

Some crabby cold symptoms — the usual gunk: light cough, wet nose, swimmy head, a generalized ick — proved to be the real deal today. A test said so. My achy-breaky body bears it out.

Now what?, I wonder. First, I’ll be isolating for five days. Then I’ll take another test. Meantime, lots of fluids, rest, crushing boredom, gratitude that I haven’t lost my taste or smell (yet!), and some reflecting on how foolish I was to think I was impervious to the virus, as I took all the precautions — two rounds of shots plus a booster, regular mask-wearing, mega doses of arrogance, etc. Small irony: I was slated to get my second booster this afternoon. 

They say most of us will get Covid, so I don’t feel completely singled out and picked on (mmm, yes I do). Still, it’s a drag. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, cancel appointments, and, sorely, I will miss a public reading of one of my brother’s stellar plays. Plus, I have a wee dry cough that sounds like a choking Munchkin.

Reading. I’ll catch up on some reading. I’m already waist-deep into a re-read of Richard Ford’s beautifully observed 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” A piercing slice of contemporary realism, the book is tinged with rue and humor and grit, and profoundly meditative about the everyday struggle. It’s oddly comforting, despite the sting. 

On deck is “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s brand-new sequel to her hit novel “The Idiot.” Like its predecessor, critics adore it (“This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations” — NYT) and the way it sweeps you into a bright young woman’s woolly world of self-discovery. (That’s all I got. I haven’t read it yet.)

I can get all philosophical about contracting the virus, or not. It’s plain as day, and because it’s physical, intellectualizing it, cataloging the myriad ways the body betrays us, is just so much wheel-spinning. So far, the malady feels like a mild head cold — every so often I wonder if I really even have it — and I’m banking on it staying that way. 

Covid can kill you, but so can the flu, or a drive to the pharmacy. I know lots of people who’ve had it and each one pulled through famously. So I’m not too tangled up about it. Everything will be just fine … right?

As the lead in “The Sportswriter” says, “Sometimes I’m afraid … It’s natural to the breed.”

The acrid bite of literary realism, in brief

Realism rules. Consider the first 10 words in Richard Yates’ novel “The Easter Parade”:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”

Sting, sizzle. 

This opener is massively effective. Knifelike, it plunges into the story, ducking preliminaries or decorous setups cluttered with background frills and bunting. Before we’ve even met the protagonists we are told in the chilliest terms how things will unspool for them tonally, if not dramatically. It’s a great entrance, pungent, punchy.

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I broach this because I’m half-way through “The Easter Parade” and its satisfactions are abundant, much like those in Yates’ corrosive classic of marital dissolution “Revolutionary Road.” That masterpiece of American realism is fiction with fangs, casting an unsparing eye on mainstream domestic rituals.

And it’s part of a 20th-century literary tradition, stories and novels, mostly by male writers, that scrutinize the age of anxiety, explicit sex, cynicism, malaise, regret, envy, jobs, kids, homes, husbands, wives, lovers, losers, drunks, the city and the mirage of the white suburban dream.

Highlights in this unofficial canon of realism include: Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”; Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”; John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff’s unflinching stories; James Salter’s “Light Years”; John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy; Richard Ford’s “Bascombe” trilogy; and so many more.

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Disillusionment, loss, heartbreak and disappointment are fragrant themes of these authors. But strangely the stories don’t feel forlorn. They almost feel consoling, perversely empathic — even when the human condition is laid bare and loneliness, our worst fear, takes hold.

”If my work has a theme,” Yates said, “I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

These realists serve up banality without bathos, unnerving wisdom in unfussy, largely conventional language. They are bleak and blunt, sometimes cruel in their honesty.

A (bitter) tasting:

“The hell with this aching, suffering, callow, half-assed delusion that he was in ‘love’ with her. The hell with ‘love’ anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.”  — Richard Yates, “Revolutionary Road”

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” — Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”

“She perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how cruel and frail it was, like a worn piece of burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness.” — John Cheever, “Stories of John Cheever”

“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.” — James Salter, “Light Years”

“Any time spent with your child is partly a damn sad time, the sadness of life a-going, bright, vivid, each time a last. A loss. A glimpse into what could’ve been.” — Richard Ford, “Independence Day”

51aBkOQUbQLThese are acid words. They are tough and unsentimental. I gravitate to them, and I can’t recommend them enough. They are beautiful. In them I locate unembellished truth. I’ve lived a little (Christ, I’m starting to sound like a grizzled cowboy) and none of these sentiments rings false or fabricated. They sound snipped from life in all its tarnished glories and burnished failures, and it is intoxicating.