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CULTURE ARCHIVES Summer Books

Jennifer Egan Gives New Yorkers the Summer’s Ultimate Beach Read

In a recent poll taken as part of the “One Book, One New York” campaign, the city’s selected Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach as the novel they’d most like to read en masse this summer. If you know the author’s writing, this is a bit of a surprise. Her most famous work is probably 2010’s Visit From the Goon Squad, an enigmatic, mind-bending tour de force that defies conventional novelistic structure (one section is composed of slides from a PowerPoint presentation) that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And you could say that the common denominator in Egan books is the fact that they have nothing in common, ranging as they do from an intimate exploration of the relationship between two sisters, one dead and one alive (Invisible Circus), to a deliciously gothic, surrealist thriller (The Keep). With her history of stylistic and formal acrobatics, and a well-earned reputation as one of the most provocative writers in modern fiction, she’s not the first you’d think a majority of New Yorkers would want to let infiltrate their already overstimulated minds, especially during the stinky dog days of summer.

Manhattan Beach, which comes out in paperback this week, is typically Egan in that it is like nothing we’ve read by her before. A seemingly straightforward historical novel, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young Irish-American woman living with her mother and sister in World War II–era Brooklyn, whose life intersects with a mysterious gangster. It reads like a refreshingly old-fashioned what-happens-next page turner. A beach read, even. Though her work up to now might not have suggested it, Egan is decidedly old-school when it comes to her process as a writer: Egan writes outdoors when she can, always by hand, and always on legal pads. “I type it up when I have a full draft,” she says. “For Manhattan Beach that meant 1,400 pages, 27 legal pads.”

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You can draw a parallel between this instinct to engage with writing in the most physical, actual-pen-on-actual-paper kind of way and the thing which Egan says motivates all of her work: pleasure. Everything she does, from the obsessive years of research to the words on the page, is driven by a desire to make her readers feel as she felt growing up first in Chicago, then San Francisco, reading everything she could get her hands on. “The goal I’m going for is the childhood reading experience of being absolutely overtaken,” she explains. As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, Egan was wooed by the more academic approach to literature. “I was much more excited by theory at Penn,” she recalls. “Not to say that I didn’t read, but I read much more as cultural documents than as organic works that had inherent power. It was incredibly fun to perform those sorts of analyses, but it doesn’t do a lot for the work of fiction itself.” A post-grad spell at Cambridge, where she eventually began work on Invisible Circus, returned Egan to her initial, more primal sense of literature’s role as, first and foremost, entertainment. “I will say, that if we have a hope of keeping literature alive in the culture, we had better be thinking about this,” she says. “Because there are a lot of alternatives. And if people only read because they’re supposed to, we’re done. I firmly believe that literature provides a kind of fun and a kind of experience that nothing else can, at least for me. It has to do that or no one’s going to want to read it. I mean, that’s kind of basic, but it’s true.”

When she’s not thinking about capturing and holding the attention of the masses via a potentially dying art form, Egan has a real New Yorker’s life. She and her husband, theater director David Herskovits, live in Fort Greene with their two sons. She’s a bona fide member of the city’s literary establishment — this year Egan was named president of PEN America. But churning beneath all that seeming normality is Egan’s telltale relentlessness, the insatiable need to tell more, better stories.  “I can’t have a gap of seven years between books again,” she lamented, just after Manhattan Beach first came out last year. Her goal going forward is a book every three years. “Whether I’ll be able to stick to a three-year cycle…we’ll see,” she says. “That’s kind of ambitious for me. But my kids are getting older and they don’t want me around as much as they used to, so I do have more time.” She paused. “I do feel it has to change,” she continued, referring to her pace; she has a lot she wants to do in her years left on this Earth as a chronicler of human experience. “When I started actually writing Manhattan Beach, I also started a first draft of what I hope will be my next book. I don’t really know what it is. I’m sure it is dreadful, but hopefully there will be something there. I mean, there’s such a big difference between having something and having nothing.”

You’re known for writing fiction that plays with time and often features unusual narrative structures. Manhattan Beach is, at least on the surface, a comparatively straightforward work: an almost self-consciously old-fashioned, sweeping New York epic tale. Obviously something about that directness — the unabashed telling of a big juicy story — has felt right to a lot of readers, but for you personally, what was the inspiration behind this type of storytelling?

In contemporary urban life, the drama is often small “d.” Like in Goon Squad, a lot of the action happens offstage, and what I’m really dramatizing is the aftermath of it, or the precursor. I don’t think I’m done with telling those kinds of stories. But the fun thing about this book for me was telling a big adventure story. Which does not feel that contemporary, interestingly. It was incredibly fun to just go there with this stuff, in the manner of Robinson Crusoe or Mutiny on the Bounty, these stories that I loved as a kid. It was just incredibly fun to write a shipwreck, and a survival-at-sea story about mobsters trying to kill each other. That felt different.

I guess the danger is, you’ve just gone into this simplistic mode: “How is this relevant to us now?” But what made it interesting to me was to try to fuse some other genres to it, like the noir. Which is a very self-conscious kind of literary and cinematic genre — very much about style. It was fun to try to bring some of these modes together, in a way that, at least for me, seemed to suggest allegorically the presence of a contemporary sensibility while allowing the — hopefully, the fun — of this kind of maximalist storytelling.

I love that you use the word “style” and the word “fun” to describe your work. There’s a pervasive misunderstanding that Serious Fiction can’t be fun, and a misconception that if it’s fun to read, it can’t be profound. Did you feel pressure to, you know, make the story relevant to the modern reader in a high-concept, Big Idea kind of way?

I think the fun of writing it, and hopefully of reading it, was ultimately sustaining the illusion that we’re all in the past. We all know that this isn’t what’s really going on now, and I kept feeling like I needed to call attention to that, so that the reader and I would understand each other. But what I realized was that I really didn’t need to do that, because we already understood each other. And the present and everything that followed from the events I’m writing about, are things we all know: They float in all of our minds almost allegorically. You know, it’s impossible to read about the security at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, certainly if you’re a New Yorker, without thinking of 9-11. And in fact some of my readers, when I first was showing a full manuscript, said, “Well, is that really how it was? That seems so contemporary?” Which was really funny because that is exactly how it was.

And you’re, like, thanks, that’s what I’m going for!

Yeah, exactly! So I realized that I was doing work that didn’t need to be done, it had already been done. And by doing that work, of reminding the reader that we’re all contemporary, I was piercing the illusion, or the sort of veil of artifice, that is one of the fun things about the book, hopefully.

Another thing is, I think a lot of my structural playfulness has been a response to technology. It’s an effort to try to find a mode of storytelling that feels appropriate to the material I’m dealing with. And I have been pretty obsessed with technology for several books now. It’s interesting, the presence of the small screen in our lives seems to invite a certain fragmentation, much as it seems to do to our brains: a sort of decentralized narrative. But one of the things that was so freeing about this time period was that there were no small screens, and I cannot tell you how happy I was to be away from them. It was so nice not to have to contend with that. And I think it did invite a kind of continuity of narrative that I’m not drawn to, that I haven’t found a way to make work in a contemporary setting. I guess that’s really the bottom line. Maybe other people are doing it successfully, but I cannot, or have not been able to.

Totally. I mean, it was such an escapist read in the best possible sense. I was just like, “I’m so happy here.”

I’m happy that you had that experience. I really feel like sheer fun is kind of underrated. Because if you look at the nineteenth century, when literature had the most cultural power, there was no divide between those things. People read George Eliot for fun. And Zola and Dickens and Jane Austen. So I can’t figure out where this bifurcation occurred or why. I think it happened with Modernism.

I mean, it can all be done at once. The nineteenth-century novelists were incredibly experimental, free, confident, and swaggering. So in some sense I find them very reassuring because I just feel like, you know, you can really do it all. It’s not a choice.

I still haven’t gotten over that moment as a kid when I started to realize that I was going to be praised for liking certain things and not praised for liking other things. When I was young and reading, like, Nancy Drew and also Dickens — I miss that time where whatever comes into your young brain that grabs you, is right. 

Yeah, I agree. I love Nancy Drew, too. I mean, I know they’re terrible, but I must have read a hundred of them. I loved it, I absolutely loved it. My taste as a kid I don’t think was especially highbrow, at all. I was not that precocious as a reader, I was definitely not reading Jane Austen. In fact, I hated Pride and Prejudice when I read it for the first time. My mother had to read it to me, because she was so disappointed that I didn’t like it, she was, like, you’re missing something.

Part of what makes me so happy about your willingness to say that out loud is that you know of what you speak. I mean, you went to Penn and then studied at Cambridge as well. How did academia inform your development as a novelist, and specifically as the type of novelist who once loved Nancy Drew but hated Pride and Prejudice?

I really feel like my bone structure — as a writer — was acquired in England. I don’t know what I would’ve done without those two years of reading. I just read a lot, especially nineteenth century. And a lot of poetry and Greek tragedy. And a lot of Shakespeare. And reading in a very different way than I had in college. I mean, I was much more excited by theory at Penn. Not to say that I didn’t read fiction, but I read it much more as cultural documents than as organic works that had inherent power. And I think in the end, it was incredibly fun to read them as cultural documents and perform those sorts of analyses, but it doesn’t do a lot for the work of fiction itself. So it was fun to kind of get back to just the fun of reading.

When you work, do you feel like you’re participating in a kind of a craft? Or does it feel metaphysical for you as someone who’s studied words in that way, and then also had this period where you were just allowed to read and kind of luxuriate in that. What does it feel like to write? Which one of those mental lanes is being accessed for you?

I think it is actually both. But I think in the moment, certainly, in the moment the first draft feels very metaphysical. Because I don’t really employ any craft. I don’t have any plans, I don’t have any outlines, I just start. All I have is a time and a place. So even after doing all those years of research, I still had no idea what story I would be telling.

You’re kidding me! So when does the actual writing start?

Well, [for Manhattan Beach] I started researching in 2004, but I was doing other things at the same time, like I published two more books. And I’m glad that I did because a lot of what I did in that first decade of the twenty-first century was interview a lot of living people who were in their eighties. And in many of those cases, I couldn’t have done that now, either because they’re actually not living or they’re really not tracking well at all anymore.

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So, yeah, I was interviewing a lot of people and then doing some reading and also having fun field trips to interesting locations. I went to a reunion of Army veteran divers in 2009, where I interviewed a diver who had dived in Cherbourg during World War II. And he actually passed away very suddenly shortly after that interview, although he was in excellent health. It was just very out of the blue. He was really amazing, Jim Kennedy. He told me that he had met a female Russian diver in Cherbourg, and she was kind of my mystery female. Also, I just started visiting different forts. I spent a fair amount of time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was at the Miami Book Fair in 2006, and drove to a couple of retirement communities nearby and interviewed women living there who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as young women.

Where does that inclination toward this level of research come from? Is it for you? Or is it for the reader, in theory? Who are you serving?

With something like interviewing the women, I certainly wasn’t thinking about readers yet because I didn’t even have a story. I think that there’s a distortion that starts to happen, which is actually getting better as I get older, but that my fate in the world stands or falls in what happens with this particular book. Though I don’t really feel that way, I have to say, right this minute.

Congrats.

I’m not sure why! I think it’s just getting older and finally achieving some kind of perspective, which is that, life will go on, I will write other things: Who gives a shit, on some level? I mean, if you take a big step back, none of this matters. There are other things down the road. As writers we have total control while working on the project. As opposed to other media, which are so much more collaborative, like theater, film, the arts, often even visual arts. Writing is just so private, and so singular in a way — its kind of an internality and total control that the writer exerts over that world.

Right. That’s the blessing and the curse of the writer’s life. It’s all yours. But then again, it’s all yours, as in, it’s all on you. How do you contend with that? What is your approach to the day in, day out heartbreaking rigor of writing?

I don’t know. Luckily I’m very dogged. I usually just keep going, but I don’t really have any solution for the heartbreak. Sometimes there are just really bad times. I feel lucky, I don’t really tend toward actual clinical depression, thank God, but that’s just luck. It’s all luck. I have a kind of robustness, mentally and physically. I’m strong. It’s just in my genes. I don’t know whether it’s the Irish potato farmer that’s still back there somewhere, like, making me doggedly go on. But generally, I just keep going. I do find darkness really difficult to deal with, so winter is a much harder time for me than summer. And even when darkness falls at night, I feel often a real kind of shadow come over my mind at the same time. I’m more aware of that as I get older. I am aware of that but I can’t stop it. I just kind of keep going.

So do you write in the morning? Partially for that purpose?

Yeah, yeah. And I love natural light, I like a lot of light. When it’s warm I always work outdoors, I love to work outdoors. And because I write by hand, I don’t have any problems with screens or—

Wait, you write by hand? Like, everything? Really?

Not journalism, but fiction, yeah.

What kind of pens do you use? Or pencils?

I use Uniballs, micros. On legal pads.

How do you edit? I mean, I know this is making me sound super nerdy—

Well, I type it up when I have a full draft. So that meant 1,400 pages, for Manhattan Beach. Twenty-seven legal pads.

So, when you sit down at your desk in the morning, how do you orient yourself on the page then? What are you seeing when you start?

Often I’ll just back up a little to remember where I left off, and then I just keep going. I don’t reread what I’ve done. Because the whole point is to not quite know what’s there, and to keep it as mysterious as I can. That way it becomes irrelevant after a few days. Utterly mysterious. I won’t even fairly remember what’s there. People’s names change, over the course of the manuscript, because I can’t remember what the name was, or how to find it. A lot of time passes, I mean it took a year and a half to write that first handwritten draft of Manhattan Beach. So that’s a lot of time. But then craft is essential in order to actually control the outcome and shape

That’s unbelievable. My first of a hundred questions that come to mind is: How on earth do you know, then, when what you’re writing is working? How can you feel into the comprehensiveness, or lack thereof, of the story?

I mean, I never think anything will work out. So, I’ll say that. It always feels likea total pie-in-the-sky who-knows, and in a way that belief, it leads to some funny situations. When I was first doing journalism, I would tell my subjects: Well, this probably won’t work out. And then I was wondering why no one respected me! It’s like, well…you’re kind of telling them you don’t know what you’re doing! That’s really not a good way to get respect.

That’s very funny.

But I will still follow those instincts, because my conscious mind tells me nothing will work out, but I do kind of make these various moves that seem to suggest some part of me believes otherwise. I didn’t think, “Oh, this is really a strange thing to be doing” when I’m going to the Miami Book Fair; I thought, “Hey, this is good. I’m getting a paid trip to Miami and I can interview these ladies.” So I’m just opportunistically looking for a way to try to do many things at once. And I think it also helps with the pressure one feels about a particular project. It’s just nice to know that there are other things going on.

It’s impossible without such extensive craft. It’s like the truism: The hope is that you make it look easy. But I’ve watched high divers and I think, wow, that’s so amazing, I wonder why I don’t do that, because clearly it’s incredibly easy to do. A triple flip and then have no splash. But of course, it’s a tremendous amount of craft that gets you there. So the experience of it is metaphysical and then I try to create that, or replicate that feeling for the reader in a controlled way using every trick I can get my hands on.

Do you ever say no to one of your new ideas? Like do you have stuff that doesn’t pan out?

Oh, yeah. That especially was true with Goon Squad. It’s funny because it seems to be viewed as a success, but to me, it’s also just, like, the best I could do, and there were a lot of things that didn’t work in that book that were a bummer. Like characters I really thought I would be able to visit at different moments that I couldn’t. Techniques that I hoped to use that I couldn’t make work. So it feels to me like sort of, the time ran out and I sort out just published that. It does not feel like some kind of perfect artifact, by any means.

That’s wild.

With Manhattan Beach, I would say that the biggest changes I made through trial and error were, there were more ancillary characters, especially people that Anna and her father had encountered when she was young, that in the end just weren’t relevant enough. And paring everything down to its absolute heart was really crucial. Because the story’s too complicated to really indulge much in any particular direction.

There were a few things that didn’t work. I thought there would be more kind of structural agility, let’s say, in this book. I thought I would use more of the kind of narrative gymnastics that I used in Goon Squad. And that was incredibly unsuccessful with this. I didn’t get far with it. It was so alienating. Luckily I have a writing group that I bring stuff into at an early point. And this, quite clearly, was ceasing to be alive whenever I would employ those techniques.

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But the other thing was, even once I had resigned myself to a more straightforward narrative with a third-person point of view, I had thought I would, in a more nineteenth-century way, really go into lots of different minds, and be more fluid with that. And what I found was that, so often with craft choices, it really is a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get and what do you lose? I mean, in the end, that is really what it comes down to. Even if you don’t put it in those terms. I felt like what I was getting was not much, because I wasn’t able to reveal much more — or what I was able to reveal about those points of view, about those people by being inside their points of view, was not really that important. Or was stuff we could already have inferred from seeing them from the outside. So there was really no justification for it. And it took up time and it took up energy, because it always requires a certain energy to jump into another point of view. So a lot of that had to be scaled back. And Goon Squad did cast a long shadow over me, as I was working on this. I kept thinking, “It just isn’t as good. By any standard. It’s not as funny.” I would go through that in my head, and it’s not helpful.

It’s always nice to hear other writers express that kind of self-doubt. As soon as you’re successful, it’s like you are now in competition with your own previous self, the one who knew how to write! So excruciating. That reminds me of something you said earlier, about your time as a journalist, which I wanted to ask you about. I know you were being self-deprecating, but you said, “Maybe that’s why no one respected me.” Do you mean that? Did you feel your subjects didn’t respect you when you were writing more journalism?

Well, no. I particularly remember the first piece I did, which was about a young model, then named James King, and the photographer was Nan Goldin, who was a very formidable, impressive, and famous person. And I would go around saying, “I don’t know if this is going to work out,” because I really had no reason to think it would, because I had never done it before. I was only doing it as a way of doing research for my novel Look at Me, because no one in the modeling world would respond to my phone calls about learning about their business. But then I was kind of miffed when people would go, “Oh, are you working on the Nan Goldin story?” Because Nan was presenting herself in an authoritative manner and no one would have imagined that her piece might not work out, and I was kind of quivering and quavering, and I seemed like I didn’t know what I was doing. And so what I realized that as a journalist, part of what you need to do is appear authoritative enough that people want to talk to you, and have confidence that putting their time into this endeavor will actually lead somewhere. That is part of the job. So even though I’m kind of naturally self-questioning, let’s say, even to the point of sometimes thinking that the things I do will never work out, I’m very responsive to what my job is. So, as a journalist, I learned that my job was not to express those worries, or even that conviction, because that is a bummer for the people whose time and energy and resources I’m asking for.

I see. You learned to cover it up. You can allow yourself to believe that it’s not going to work out until it actually does.

Yeah, it’s a drag, though. I think that it makes my working environment unpleasant at times, in ways that it doesn’t need to be, you know? I’m not the best person to be stuck alone with inside a skull.

I can imagine that.

I can be really harsh, in a way that I never would be with another person because I feel so empathetic toward what other people are going through, but I don’t always extend that empathy to myself.

That connects to what you were saying earlier, about wanting people to actually enjoy themselves when they read your work. It’s almost like you want the experience of reading your work to be on the opposite side of the energetic spectrum from the doggedness it took to create it. I get the feeling you wouldn’t want to be assigned as homework…for example.

Well, if people only read because they’re supposed to, we’re done. I firmly believe that literature provides a kind of fun and a kind of experience that nothing else can, at least for me. But it has to do that or no one’s going to want to read it. I mean that’s kind of basic, but it’s true.

Do you enjoy talking about writing. Like, is it natural for you, or are you sort of like, this part’s tough?

I used to have really bad public-speaking fear, to such a degree that I couldn’t even introduce…I couldn’t even toast these people at their wedding when I introduced them. So when my first book came out, which was an extremely long time ago now, I had to take beta blockers, and I did that really for a few years. Basically always taking beta blockers when I had to do public speaking.

Wow, OK.

Yeah, I really had a problem with actually panicking, sort of freezing and being unable to speak. But then what I found, because the beta blockers sort of keep your body from going into panic mode, I then — you know, little by little — I was having experiences of being in front of people and not panicking. And that actually slowly made me better able to not have the problem at all.

Isn’t that interesting?

So now I find it not — not scary. I actually enjoy talking about writing. I really do. I think the fact is I know I like hearing what other people say. It’s always really interesting to me to hear other people talk about their process, it’s so different for each of us I think, so I enjoy that conversation. And the truth is, it is lovely to connect with readers. I think I publish so seldom, unfortunately, that by the time it happens I’m really hungry for it again, even though I always think, oh, I’m never gonna want to do this again. It takes so long, it’s actually very nice. I feel like I’m lucky to have readers. It’s great to have that moment with them before we all go back to our own zones.

I’m struck by how many people I’ve reached with Goon Squad. Because people really do come along and say — because it has been seven years — people will say, “Oh, I was in high school,” or “Oh, I read that in college,” and it meant a lot to them. And that, of course, is just exciting and thrilling to hear. And often people haven’t read Manhattan Beach yet, so they’re there because of other works that they’ve liked. But also, I’m equally thrilled when someone says, “I’ve never read you before, but I really liked that little reading, so I bought the book.” I feel like, wow, OK, so I just found a reader that I really wouldn’t have had before.

That has to be super gratifying.

Yeah. And really — I think the other thing is that, I mean, I feel that I have something enormous in common with anyone who loves to read. So I often feel like these are all people that I could just know in my real life. I feel like these are really my people. Anyone who loves to read is someone I am interested in talking to. So I feel lucky to have a milieu that feels so friendly to me, and so kind of, appealing, frankly. ’Cause we have something enormous in common.

So you want the reader to…what? To be transported? Like, what’s the fantasy? I pick up Manhattan Beach and I start at page one. What do you want to happen to me between then and the end? You know? Like what do you want to do to me?

That’s so funny. Well, I’ll tell you the kind of wrong but extreme answer that I gave my mother once when she said she had read something, I guess a short story, and I said, “Well, what do you think?” And she said, “I like it.” And I said, “No, OK, you like it, but how much do you like it?” I mean, I was so unsatisfied, and she said, “Well, what reaction would please you? Like, what do you want me to say?” And I thought about it and I said, “I want a call from the hospital, where I learn you have had to be admitted because of the intensity of your reaction to the short story.”

The most important thing to me…I cannot overemphasize this — like, I bring things into this writing group, and the number one question I’m always asking, and this includes when I sent out the entire manuscript for the first time — “Where does it hold your interest? And where does your interest flag?” Those are the two questions I ask before anything else. This is entertainment, I really feel that. That is what I am looking for as a reader. A kind of gorging, gulping, transporting experience of being lifted out of my life. That’s what I’m looking for as a reader, and that’s what I hope to provide as a writer. Now, I know that I fail 99 percent of the time with 99 percent of people. That’s just the nature of the endeavor. But that is very clearly what I am going for. I don’t know if that’s a quote, unquote “literary goal.” I mean, what I require as a reader, in order to have that experience, are things like a strong burning of ideas, a deep kind of embedded mystery that can’t be explained, an attention to rhythm, and sound of language. You know, a lot of things that are not gonna happen with most books that I read. But the goal that I’m going for is the childhood reading experience of being absolutely overtaken.

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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Hillary Clinton Warns of Creeping Authoritarianism in America

For journalists worldwide, 2017 ranks as one of the most dangerous on record: Eighteen journalists were killed, according to Freedom House, while 189 currently languish in prisons around the world. Here at home, meanwhile, the safety and sanctity of journalism is threatened by a president who regularly attacks the press, handpicks which organizations can attend White House briefings, and compulsively sells falsities as reality.

Such was the crux of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech Sunday night at the Cooper Union, which closed out the weeklong PEN World Voices Festival. Joining the ranks of past speakers such as Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Sonia Sotomayor, Clinton had been chosen to give this year’s annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture — which traditionally addresses current challenges to free expression — based on her work defending human rights and free speech as secretary of state. Said PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel in her deeply personal introduction — Nossel served under Clinton as a deputy assistant secretary of state — the efforts of the former secretary had “helped secure the freedom to write for tens of millions worldwide.”

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Clinton used her 45-minute speech to sound the alarm that freedom of speech and expression is currently under attack here in our own country. The target of a Russian-led disinformation campaign during her 2016 run for president, Clinton was a fitting choice to talk about the new dangers facing not just those in this country who report the news, but also those of us who read and absorb it. She spoke of the election as “a case study in the weaponization of false information and outright lies against our democracy,” detailing foreign agents’ use of social media to plant false stories and sow not only distrust in her candidacy, but division throughout the country. And she stressed the danger we face living under a president who “seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy” and who distorts facts and continually lies, even about things as obvious as, say, the size of an inaugural crowd.

“When leaders deny things that we can see with our own eyes,” she said, “it’s not just frustrating to those of us who try to live in a fact-based universe. It is the beginning of the end of freedom. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.” To drive her point home, she noted that earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin monitoring the activities of reporters and media professionals.

Clinton ended her speech with a call to action, not just for the writers in the room but for the American people at large. “We have to find our voice, in whatever way we are comfortable, to speak out,” she said, later adding: “Everyone’s voices need to be raised at this time.”

“Do not grow weary — be sustained by the energy that the truth can give you,” she continued. “I have no doubt we will get our country back on the right track.”

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The Q&A that followed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the author of the award-winning novel Americanah, and herself the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write speaker in 2015 — was warm and engaging in covering a variety of topics, from the personal to the political, from Clinton’s decision to run for office to her passionate hopes for how we can conquer the divisiveness currently plaguing the country. But the themes of free speech and vigilance against its suppression resurfaced time after time. Clinton spoke again of the weaponization of misinformation that occurred during the election — and continues today — noting how the false stories that were circulated during her campaign were so credible because they were delivered in a way, via social media, that looked like news.

“You have to wonder: How do we stop this?” she asked. “Because we’re living in a time when information can be so powerful, and if it’s wrong, or it’s intended to influence you to do something that is not reality-based but based instead on propaganda, that’s a problem that we have to deal with going forward.” When Adichie asked if this is why she has chosen to keep speaking post-election, Clinton nodded and said that it was.

She and Adichie also discussed how free speech has been a central cause for feminism, with Clinton noting the “long, long history of trying to silence women.” She cited recent instances of attempts to shut down the voices of powerful political women — from Elizabeth Warren, who was removed from the Senate floor as she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s letter denouncing Jeff Sessions (a letter that was then read out loud to completion by male colleagues), to Kamala Harris, who was told to stop talking during her questioning of Sessions in his Senate hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Trump campaign.

“In my case, it was also because a lot of those same people who said, ‘Don’t talk,’ they did not want to face what happened in the 2016 election,” she later said, addressing Adichie’s question about calls, from both the right and the left, for her to remain quiet following her presidential defeat. But, she said, “I come at it very differently: If we don’t try to understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated in future elections.”

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On the Front Lines in the Fight Against Fake News

According to a poll released earlier this month by Monmouth University, over three-quarters of Americans believe major news outlets report “fake news.” Gone are the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. In this strange new reality the news media has been forced to ask itself: How do you fight the proliferation of fake news in a world where bad actors are actively pushing it, unregulated social media platforms are promoting it, unwitting users are sharing it, and the president of the United States can’t stop talking about it?

On Saturday, the PEN World Voices Festival hosted a conversation to discuss this crisis of confidence in the media, moderated by PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and featuring Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a contributor for NBC News and MSNBC; William Kristol, founder and editor at large of the Weekly Standard; John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the Associated Press; and Peter Barbey, president and CEO of the Village Voice as well as the Reading Eagle Company in Reading, Pennsylvania. In a lively discussion at the Cooper Union’s Rose Auditorium, the panel discussed the challenges facing the news media as it fights the spread of fake news, even as it is accused of spreading it every day.

Last year, PEN America released the report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truthin which fraudulent news was defined as “demonstrably false information that is being presented as a factual news report with the intention to deceive the public, and the related erosion of public faith in traditional journalism.” The problem, as Saturday’s discussion made clear, is that not everyone shares that definition: To the president, “fake news” seems to be anything that he disagrees with or that calls into question his legitimacy; to his opponents, it’s anything he says or promotes.

For Kristol, who has been outspoken as a conservative voice in the anti-Trump chorus, the rise of fake news is inextricably tied to the president’s shaky relationship with the truth. “The presidency is a bully pulpit, and the president is using it to be a bully,” said Kristol, noting that this one-sidedness is only reinforced by outlets like Fox News. Daniszewski pointed out that Trump’s actions mirror that of autocrats around the world who have weaponized fake news, using it as a cudgel to attack a free press.

Peter Barbey and Yamiche Alcindor

But the problems facing journalism are also playing out on the local level. Barbey, whose family has run newspapers in Reading for eight generations, pointed to the importance of a free press in helping communities define themselves. With Google and Facebook deciding what counts as news, he noted, there’s less and less accountability. “Now it’s these platforms deciding what’s news,” he said. “It used to be that the local paper was the platform.” Barbey addressed some of these issues in a Hollywood Reporter editorial last week. “Unable to prevent digital platforms from aggregating their stories into free news alternatives supported by programmatic advertising, legitimate publishers have seen almost two decades of plummeting revenues and shrinking (or, in some cases, vanishing) newsrooms,” he wrote of the unintended effects that Facebook and Google have had on local news. “Meanwhile, hyper-partisan and fake news aggregators…have flourished. In an instance of unintended consequences of monumental proportions, the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] precipitated a situation in which professional writers, rigorously trained to report facts and truth, find it next to impossible to make a living.”

As Alcindor noted, the importance of local news extends to sources that cater to sectors of society with less of a voice, like the African American community. While everyone onstage seemed to agree that the mainstream news media is facing an existential crisis, there was no shortage of ideas as to how the tide might be turned, from a Consumer Reports–like service to monitor the news, to a university model where editorships might be endowed like professorships, to a “journalism Peace Corps” to get young Americans involved and invested. What’s clear is that legitimate news sources have never been more important, and that if America is going to get through this chapter of our history, it’s incumbent upon the press to do its job. “Real journalists,” said Alcindor, “shouldn’t change anything.”

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The PEN World Voices Festival Opens With a Shout

On the opening night of PEN America’s weeklong World Voices Festival, the Prix Goncourt–decorated Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani  — whom France’s neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron tasked in November with promoting French language and culture — described to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik what she saw as the fundamental difference between journalism (a former career of hers) and fiction writing. “For me, literature is completely different,” said Slimani, “a space of absolute freedom, where I can reinvent myself.” She then dictated a quote, which she attributed to Sartre: “A writer is a free man who speaks to free men, and whose only topic is freedom.” That would of course disqualify anyone from being a writer, and even taken in the buoyant spirit in which I believe it was intended, it still could use some scrutiny. Like: How are fiction writers to reconcile this unrestrained creative freedom with their apparent obligation to attend panels where they are inevitably asked for the most part to comment on their political views? Which is just a roundabout way of asking what the act of writing fiction is free from, what that freedom entails, and to what extent it might be transferable to the circumscribed lives we all carry out off the page. The theme of this year’s festival, in which 165 authors from more than 50 countries are participating, is “Resist and Reimagine,” the expectation being that these dozens of panels and readings will illuminate how writers and writing can do that, or fail to. 

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The two short panels and two readings that comprised the festival’s first feature event at Cooper Union on Monday night took different approaches to this challenging, expansive framework, but one of the staunchest refrains was an affirmation of the humanist power of universalized narratives. The Afro-Caribbean Australian writer and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke read an essay by the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in an immigrant “processing center” for close to five years. Boochani was seeking asylum from Iran in the territory when the Australian government implemented what Amnesty International has called “its illegal ‘offshore processing’ policies” in 2013 — and now he and hundreds of refugees are essentially in exile and incarcerated, since their options are only to remain on the island for an indeterminate amount of time or be deported to their country of origin. Boochani’s essay is a reported meditation on a peaceful protest lead by his fellow refugee prisoners; he ends by extolling the virtues of humanity, love, friendship, and justice, though police of course ultimately quelled the demonstration with brute force. By collectively and compassionately organizing under these community-oriented ideals “in direct opposition to fascism,” Boochani asserts the refugees “never became mere bodies, subject to politics.” Slimani also referred to fiction writing as “a place of universality — you can cross the borders.”  

PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2018

Though many of the participants bandied about uplifting messages focused on forging connections and feeling compassion, it was certainly not all that was under discussion. Colson Whitehead’s relentless diversionary tactics were frequently hilarious, rivaled only by Slimani’s joyous harangues of spoiled Parisian women. The topic of the discussion between The Underground Railroad author and Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed (a fellow Pulitzer winner) was “How the legacy of slavery reverberates throughout our history,” and Whitehead averred that one of the most surprising aspects of that legacy’s persistence is “how shallowly it’s taught.… I think there were ten minutes on slavery, forty minutes on Abraham Lincoln at my [elementary] school; ten minutes on segregation and forty minutes on Martin Luther King.” He cited a sixtysomething woman who approached him recently to ask if there were ever “cave-ins” on the Underground Railroad. He also made reference to slave patrollers’ “stop and frisk” methods, drawing a parallel to his experience of getting stopped by New York City cops on the Upper East Side when he was sixteen (“If you’re writing about 1850,” he said, “you’re writing about now”).

In response to questions pertaining to his personal legacy, Whitehead was terser. At one point he responded to a question about his potential responsibility to discuss more “uplifting” subjects, saying, “If you want uplifting, go see a clown or something.” He went on, “I guess I could have written about white people from the upper middle class who feel sad sometimes.” When asked whether he ever thought about being something other than a writer, Whitehead mused that he might have been an “ad man,” like Salman Rushdie was, or Don DeLillo.

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org

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Sean Penn, A Man of Many Trades

This year’s PEN World Voices Festival features dozens of writers from around the globe, including bestselling novelists, war correspondents, Hollywood screenwriters, and globe-trotting activists. Sean Penn, whose debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuffwas released last monthis likely the only speaker who ticks off each and every one of those boxes. And he’s definitely the only writer whose résumé boasts all of the above bona fides plus a couple of Oscars for Best Actor. On Tuesday night, the 57-year-old sits down for what is sure to be a wide-ranging conversation with New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn.

“I think the fact that Sean is out there, offstage, and has a very private parallel life — as in Haiti and other places he is drawn to, curious about, or involved in — is the very thing that would surprise most people,” says Anderson, who interviewed Penn for a New Yorker feature about Haiti’s recovery from 2010’s devastating earthquake. “Also perhaps, beyond all the Hollywood bad boy glamour and gossip, that he has a very practical bent, which he deploys in order to make basic things work for people going through hard times. As in Haiti.”

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For anyone who’s been paying attention, the fact that Penn should turn to writing isn’t especially surprising. Since 1991, when he turned his own screenplay into his feature directorial debut, The Indian Runner, Penn has shown an affinity for letters, and an eye for America’s dark heart. He’s written op-eds in major newspapers, befriended celebrated authors, and scored one of the biggest scoops in recent magazine history when Rolling Stone published his exclusive interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.

“The Chapo scoop was quite something, and he got a lot of stick for it, paradoxically,” says Anderson. “He made himself vulnerable by overly exposing the process he underwent for the story he wrote, but I appreciated the fact that he went and did it at all, which takes moxie.”

When you add a lifetime of experiences — from starring as Jeff Spicoli to marrying Madonna to helping rebuild earthquake-ravaged Haiti or hurricane-ravaged New Orleans — the guy clearly has plenty to write about. So why not kick off his publishing career with something a bit less challenging, not to mention more commercially promising, like, say, a memoir? “At this point in my life,” says Penn, “fiction served my participation more strongly.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any similarities between author and protagonist. Sean Penn is a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. Bob Honey is also a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. But where Penn is regularly photographed with the world’s most beautiful women and is recognized as one of his generation’s finest actors, Honey is a “man of many trades,” as Penn writes. “Sewage specialist, purveyor of pyrotechnics, contract killer for a mysterious government agency that pays in small bills.”

Penn began Bob Honey as an audiobook, a rush job aimed at getting a rough version of his vision out before Election Day 2016. No stranger to controversy, he’s received some criticism for the way the book alludes to recent news, including the #MeToo movement (“Is this a toddlers’ crusade? Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play? A platform for accusation impunity?”), Hillary Clinton’s loss (“Was she the worst possible candidate or are you the most arrogant, ill, and unqualified electorate in the history of the Western world?”), and Donald Trump’s win (“You are not simply a president of impeachment, you are a man in need of an intervention. We are not simply a people in need of an intervention, we are a nation in need of an assassin”).

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While the specter of the election hangs darkly over the book, in the real world Penn sees some light on the horizon, embodied by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “ ‘Hope’ is a term some seem to lean on as a predetermined life preserver,” he says. “I don’t want to promote the denial of imminent threat. I find teenagers who fall under horrifying murderous gunfire on one day, and testify with grace, intelligence, and humor the next, a strong sign of hope.”

For his part, Penn shows no signs of slowing down, even if he plans to spend more time with a pen in his hand than in front of a movie camera. “Any movie is a collaborative effort,” says Penn, who frequently notes that he no longer plays too well with others. “My book…is mine.”

‘Sean Penn in Conversation With Jon Lee Anderson’
PEN World Voices Festival
St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church
157 Montague Street, Brooklyn
April 17 at 7 p.m.

 

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org.

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Reckoning and Resistance at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival

In a 2005 article on the first PEN America World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie wrote of the need for Americans to listen to the voices of the globally oppressed. “Those voices — Arab or Afghan or Latin American or Russian — need to be magnified, so that they can be heard loud and clear just as the Soviet dissidents once were.” This was, of course, long before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the surge of white nationalist rhetoric into the mainstream discourse, and the global reckoning of the #MeToo movement. This year’s PEN World Voices Festival: Resist and Reimagine promises to interrogate America’s own dissident histories and power dynamics.

The director of the festival, Chip Rolley, says that, partially, this year’s festival aims “to look squarely and directly at our own problems, from the rise of fake news, to the resurgence in white supremacy, to nativist policies at odds with the United States’s growing diversity, which is integral to the very idea of America.” This year some 165 writers representing more than fifty nationalities are scheduled to participate. Village Voice president and CEO Peter Barbey, a co-sponsor of the event, will speak alongside Yamiche Alcindor and William Kristol on the panel “Fighting Fake News” (April 21, $15).

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The festival, which runs April 16–22, spans more than sixty events in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It kicks off at Cooper Union with “Resist and Reimagine: An Opening Night in Three Acts” ($35). Australian performance poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, American author Colson Whitehead, and Franco Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani will discuss the refugee crisis, the legacy of slavery, and the importance of immigrant narratives respectively. These themes will be expanded upon in later events, which will touch on #MeToo’s international context (“Us Too,” April 17, $12 in advance, featuring Clarke, Dunya Mikhail, and Tishani Doshi, and moderated by Mona Eltahawy) and reclaiming the art of coffee making (“Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali: Good to the Last Drop,” April 16, $15). Rushdie will share a panel on writing about New York with Paul Auster and Sergio De La Pava, moderated by Colum McCann (“New York Stories,” April 21, $30).

Clockwise from top left: Festival speakers Leïla Slimani, Colson Whitehead, and Anita Sarkeesian

Resist and Reimagine also speaks to the burgeoning political interest young Americans have displayed in recent years. This year, the festival debuts its “Next Generation Now” series, geared toward children and young adults. “Little Activists: A Protest and Mini March” (April 21, free with RSVP) is aimed at pre-K to third-grade students. Also on the docket: writing workshops and panels from young-adult authors and comic creators, including Charles Waters, Innosanto Nagara, and Daniel José Older.

The festival’s outreach to children and young adults seems timely. Young people have increasingly become part of the political landscape, especially as debate around civil issues has heightened on campus politics. In October 2016, PEN America released “And Campus for All,” its survey on free speech and discrimination on U.S. college campuses. The study surveyed invitations to speakers, safe spaces, and campus civility, noting that while “there have been some troubling instances of speech curtailed, these do not represent a pervasive ‘crisis’ for free speech on campus.” On April 21, PEN America director Suzanne Nossel will moderate a conversation between Masha Gessen and Patrisse Cullors on the state of open discourse in America in “Resistance Report Card: Grading the Groundswell” ($15).

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Speech has also been a divisive subject online, where the alt-right frequently targets activists and marginalized communities. Anita Sarkeesian, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and Porochista Khakpour will gather to discuss their experiences battling harassment at “Take Back the Net: Fighting Online Hate” (April 21, $15). Tensions concerning free speech and the internet crested in the targeted series of attacks on women in the video gaming industry now dubbed “Gamergate.” Sarkeesian, best known for her Feminist Frequency videos that analyze pop culture through a feminist lens, was one of the primary targets of these attacks. Antagonists sent her death and rape threats, released her home address, threatened terrorist attacks at her speaking engagements, and created a computer game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. She says internet harassment remains an issue that needs to be seriously addressed. “It’s still not unusual for people to respond to stories of online harassment with statements like, ‘Why don’t you just log off?’ Well, because my whole life is online, because my work requires me to be active in online spaces, and why would I concede my right to be in those spaces to anyone?”

Sarkeesian says that while legal reforms and social media companies can help fight this issue, we also need “a shift toward listening to, believing, and honoring women and marginalized people and our experiences, both online and off.” In this spirit, PEN America will release its Online Harassment Field Manual on April 21 to help writers and journalists navigate this increasingly hostile terrain.

Hillary Clinton will deliver the final remarks at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on Sunday, April 22.

The festival concludes with Hillary Clinton delivering final remarks on Sunday, April 22, at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, where she and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will discuss the future of women and girls around the world. In 2005, Rushdie wrote of attending the 48th Congress of International PEN in 1986, where “many women at the congress demanded, with much justification, to know why there were so few women on the panels.” The recent years’ emphasis on women and their experiences in literature and the larger political landscape is a cheering and notable change from the days when women were not considered “intellectual” enough for public conversation.

“The cold war is over, but a stranger war has begun,” Rushdie wrote. “Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread; all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built.” Somehow, it seems we have found ourselves with more bridges, and an increasing sense of alienation.

“There’s a strong irony that the more connected we are, the more alienated we might feel,” says festival director Rolley, in regard to our current political factionalism. But the PEN World Voices Festival aims to overcome that by bringing together poets, authors, and journalists. “Stories have the power to convey empathy,” he says, “to heighten our awareness of what makes us human and what makes us connected with each other.”

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org.

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Banksy’s Back in New York City

The last time he made work in New York City, Banksy, the famous street artist, had trouble finding locations. “Most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already,” the elusive British stencil maestro told the Voice in a rare interview in October 2013. That month, he put up one new piece per day, fomenting a scavenger-hunt energy as droves of fans quested around the city to spot and photograph the latest piece before the elements — or vandals — could damage it.

No scouting difficulty this time. Banksy’s first work in the city in five years is on the Bowery Wall, the seventy-foot surface at Houston Street and Bowery where Keith Haring once put a mural in the 1970s. Now a curated space, courtesy of the property owner, it has recently shown David Choe, Ron English, Brazil’s Os Gêmeos, Spain’s Pichi & Avo, and more.

Passersby take in Banksy’s piece at the Bowery Mural in Mahattan

On Thursday, a masked figure cloaked in white spacesuit-like overalls was observed standing on a lift, making black vertical tally marks in clusters of five on the white wall. A press release went out. The work is a collaboration between Banksy and the American street artist Borf, it explained. It is a tribute to the jailed Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.

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Doğan, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is one year into a nearly three-year sentence in Turkey. Her crime was to make a watercolor depicting a town in Turkish Kurdistan in ruins after combat between the army and Kurdish rebels. Perversely, the painting was based on a photograph the Turkish military itself had circulated. But its appropriation by Doğan, who is a progressive journalist as well as an artist, was not to the liking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

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“I really feel for her,” Banksy said in a brief statement to the New York Times. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”

By Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours into its display, the work was in conversation with the city — for better or worse. Clusters of pilgrims gathered on the sidewalk and in the median traffic island facing it to snap the best views. A group of students from St. John’s University listened to a guide extol the site’s importance in art history. On the second-highest of the work’s four long rows of tally marks, Doğan’s face looked out over the scene, in a clever and attractive design: the vertical marks now prison bars, and the last one tapered to represent a sharpened pencil. Down near the sidewalk, the inscription FREE ZEHRA DOGAN beckoned passersby to remember her name.

The vandals, too, had shown up. Between the third and fourth row, an interloper had scrawled his identity in red spray paint nine times over — damage that would require a fresh paint job to remedy, which would no doubt invite recidivism. Such is the city.

Detail from the mural of Dogan, who was jailed by Turkish authorities in March 2017 for painting the ruins of a Kurdish town destroyed at the hands of Turkey’s military.

The work remains elegant, if no longer pure. Its simple geometry contrasts with Banksy’s more common use of stencils — representing humans, dogs, rats, butterflies, flowers, fire hydrants, shopping carts — and the stark pathos of its appeal on behalf of a prisoner of conscience is a welcome moral improvement over the massive hoardings for fashion labels or alcohol brands that pollute whole walls in this part of the city.

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It will pass, of course — street art is transient by nature, and thus also, at least in some measure, by design. In her actual prison cell, Doğan can only make her own tally marks to count the days; her release comes in principle in December 2019. According to the press release, she has yet to learn of this venture. A campaign by PEN America invites the public to write U.S. authorities to urge them to demand her release.

Banksy’s piece at the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue is a rat running while trapped inside a clock at a disused bank.

A second Banksy has popped up a mile or so away, this one more in keeping with his brand, furtive and sly. A large stenciled rat — one of his fetish animals, and sadly fitting for New York City — has appeared on the face of a stopped clock on a derelict former bank building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.

The hour hand of the clock is stalled above the rat’s rump, seeming to push it up the clock face in a futile circular motion. Here, too, street-art pilgrims and gawkers stand on the corner looking up and snapping pictures. Beneath the clock, homeless individuals sit with their belongings in the condemned doorway. All parties appear supremely oblivious to one another. Prisons, distress, exclusion, futility: The dots connect and the metaphors write themselves as shoppers stream past and an open-topped tourist bus chugs by.

A detail of Banksy’s rat at 14th Street and 6th Avenue

UPDATE 3/17/18 1:00 p.m.: No confirmation on his Instagram yet, but Banksy seems to have struck again, this time in Brooklyn.

A new Banksy tag near a long-closed gas station in Midwood, Brooklyn near the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue I.

UPDATE 3/18/18 2:00 p.m.: And we have confirmation.

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