Vignette by Pierre Chareau

Coca cola

A few years later I found out “Steely Dan” was actually Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and that their name was lifted from a William S. Burroughs novel (it’s a dildo), a discovery made while ditching seventh-grade social studies to read back issues of Rolling Stone in the public library. (I also learned that that the insect on the cover of Katy Lied was a katydid, not a praying mantis.) As an only child growing up in an unincorporated townlet in Wisconsin, there were many nights when it was just me in the chair and the Dan on the turntable and a few owls hooting in the woods. The sound of Dan music became as natural and enveloping to me to as the countryside itself. It led me to champion the songs of Becker and Fagen among the self-styled punks I later started hanging out with, provoking j’accuse-like denunciations: I was the enemy within, the guy who liked easy listening. I found disses among learned rock pedants in the magazines, too, which I began to catalog: Steely Dan was “hippie Muzak” and “Valium jazz”; their music “sounded like it was recorded in a hospital ward” and was “exemplarily well-crafted schlock”; they were a “brain without a body.” How could these people say such things about songs that were so deviant and bizarre and yet so warm and often staggeringly musical? The fact that the Dan had hits—really huge hits, actually, like “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Peg”—only made the whiff of some lurid, freaky luxury in the music seem more pronounced. You could be lyrically weird and musically oblique and still have lots of people like it. A mystery lurked at the center of it all. And the uncut essence of that mystery—the distillation of Dan music, the point beyond which the aesthetic cannot be pushed any further—is their airless, lacquered Masterwerk, Gaucho.

Like all good jokes, better before you explain it

“A Short History of The Times’s Shortest Story”

Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.

In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”

You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?

Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.

Pablo Enriquez

Actual persons living or dead

Tim Parks begins his piece on Dante by asking how the Divine Comedy would have fared these days, when if you ‘put real people in a work of fiction … you immediately face libel and privacy issues’ (LRB, 14 July). That reminded me of the time when in a pleasant Chester-le-Street bookshop (no longer in existence) I was offered a paperback translation of Inferno which assured me that it was a work of fiction containing no reference to actual persons living or dead. Some time later I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of Inferno on the basis of a killer sales pitch that it was ‘the first ever version by an Irish poet’.

George Schlesinger
Durham

‘Considerable variety’

My favorite story in [Alfred Döblin’s] Bright Magic is “The Other Man.” It begins when a Boston gynecologist named Dr. Converdon hires a blond secretary named Mery, who has “beautiful braids.” He sleeps with her and discovers, to his dismay, that she is a virgin. Converdon’s behavior becomes erratic and brutal. He forces Mery to dance in a cabaret so that other men can ogle her; Mery enjoys the performance, but he doesn’t allow her to do it again — instead, he marries her. Shortly thereafter, Converdon receives a letter from an acrobat named Wheatstren, declaring his love for Mery and advising Converdon to save everyone a lot of hassle by killing himself. After considering the matter, Converdon consents. Wheatstren tires of Mery and pimps her out at the racecourse and the theater. This is the last line: “She, however, praised him at every turn, because he offered her the greatest thing that there is on earth: considerable variety.” It’s a love story.

Döblin is a true master — a scientist and a mystic whose characters, battered by a senseless world, cling to what today we would call existence or integrity but what he would have called the soul. They are alternately crude and fragile, suckers and saints. They hope and dream in excess of reason but are tethered to solid ground. In the very funny “Traffic with the Beyond,” a society of spiritualists is duped by a murderer. The fable “Materialism,” written after the author’s conversion to Catholicism, tracks the havoc unleashed when nature, including bulls, the grass, and water, learns of the primacy of matter. “Everything we do is meaningless,” thinks the tiger. “How could I have been so blind. It’s chemical reactions and reflexes wherever you look. . . . I started a family and brought seven rascals into the world for this. It’s sobering. A waste of time.”

The cohort studies discussed by Gavin Francis often confirm what everyone already knows: that (statistically speaking) a person born into disadvantageous circumstances is likely to be disadvantaged through life (LRB, 2 June). The addition of DNA collection and analysis to these studies is a recent phenomenon, which Francis hopes will deliver a deeper understanding of the interplay between genes and environment. I suspect this will prove optimistic. We already know that the genetic contribution to most of the common chronic diseases – including stroke, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease and dementia – is surprisingly small. Genetic studies in this area generate great masses of data and any number of ‘statistically significant’ results. Very often the effect of a particular genetic variation is small, there is no plausible explanation, and when different cohorts are examined the results can’t be reproduced. When genetic thinking is applied to such hard-to-define traits as personality, behaviour, lawlessness and intelligence, the danger is that great volumes of white noise will be generated. Yet, as Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson have pointed out, politicians, corporations and researchers are all partial to research into genetic determinism: politicians because it reduces their responsibility for ill-health and social disadvantage; corporations because it diverts blame; and researchers because funding for this type of research is relatively easy to obtain.

Tim Cundy
University of Auckland

IMAGE: Forced rhubarb is grown in the dark and harvested by candelight, resulting in stalks that are more slender and tender. (In the dark, the stalks grow so fast that you can hear them squeak and pop.) Photograph by Martin Parr/Magnum, via The New Republic.

‘Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow’ (Thames, 1987)