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Alex Carnevale

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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In Which Absolutely Nothing Is Taken For Granted



by Margo Jefferson
Pantheon, 248 pp

"There are so many ways to be ambushed by insult and humiliation," writes Margo Jefferson in her new memoir Negroland. Reviews of the book so far focused on Jefferson's class, implying that she had set out to write a history of the lives of upper class blacks in America. 

There is that history here, but it is strange to call it the story of the bourgeoisie. When we tell the history of other peoples and places, focusing exclusively on the most wealthy and powerful people of the time seems pretty much conventional. With African-Americans, some special dispensation must be made. 

Jefferson grew up in a white area of Chicago. She was one of the only black students in her school, and as such, she dealt with a condescending type of racism. It is this kind of subtle racism that has replaced the good old Confederate flag waving kind, for the most part. 

When students at the University of Missouri confronted their president, they were aggrieved by his tone more than anything. They asked him whether he knew what systematic oppression was. He responded by saying, "I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer. Systematic oppression is when you don't believe that you have the equal opportunity for success."

In the first part of her book, Jefferson tells the stories of black Americans who achieved success in the white, racist world of early America. These are inspiring stories, in some cases moving ones, although Jefferson tells them with a scholarly distance that makes of them no more than the facts of their lives. The point of this approach is to pretend unbias — but we cannot really manage this, since every black person who lived during this time is a hero even for existing. 

"Nothing about us is taken for granted by anyone anywhere in the world," Jefferson explains of a guided tour through the black magazines of the period around her youth. Ebony was set on explaining the black experience in a facile way, and looking back on the headlines from the time betrays the fact that there was no such consistent experience. 

The story of Jefferson's own life reiterates this message. She believes on some level that her tony upbringing isn't representative, that it does not tell the full story, hence the inclusion of so many other histories as a preface to her own. She moves through each excruciating grade with a memory that exceeds most conscious descriptions of childhood.

In gorgeous prose she lays out the specific details, careful to avoid any and all cliche. There is a fear of being critiqued that haunts her writing, a preemptive self-critique that is at times welcome and in other moments a source of frustration. "We were the third race," Jefferson explains at one point, though we know it is not true. 

Ms. Jefferson was a profoundly unhappy high schooler. She remained on the outside circles of her cliques, orbiting them like a moon. "I crave the gift of recreational shallowness," she admits, perhaps not entirely sincerely. Eventually she switches to telling her story of disillusion from a third person perspective, as though she is not herself at all. 

In its last third, Negroland nearly dissolves in anger. In the absence of sense-making, the book becomes a spirited intellectual recollection of blackness, mostly avoiding Margo's unhappy time at Brandeis. More history introduces on the ending of Negroland, as Jefferson decides exactly how pessimistic she should be about the immense volley of racism she has experienced, most of it underhanded and hinting, like the light stroke of a pen.

There is something more pernicious about such an assault. It is why freedom of speech remains valuable; for if we exterminated the most vile viewpoints from our society we would never know of this other, skulking racism that follows people of color from place to place. By the very end of her book, Jefferson has no idea what exactly led her to construct the sense of the self that she currently has. "It is too easy to recount unhappy memories," she sighs, and tries to write something encouraging to make Negroland less of a eulogy. There is a feeling there beyond her exhortation to "Go on" that we have not come very far at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which We Travel Light In The Badlands

Death of Good Taste


Into The Badlands
creators Alfred Gough & Miles Millar

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross have a sketch in their new Netflix series W/Bob and David where a white director explains the genesis of his movie Better Roots. Ironically two white men have also teamed up on the AMC network to launch their version of the slave story called Into the Badlands.

In this stock photo from 1821, helpers are happy.Into the Badlands takes place on a massive plantation where young boys are either trained as ninjas or put to work in fields cultivating heroin. Young women aren't allowed to become warriors, so they are exclusively limited to farmwork. Sonny (Daniel Wu) is the top slave (in David Cross' terminology, "helper") who has a tattoed mark on his back representing every person he has killed for his master (Martin Csokas).

Despite the extensive slave allegory, exactly one of the helpers is black. You can see him slightly to the right of Csokas in the above photograph. Recently Adam Sandler had a huge problem recruiting Native Americans to play a role in his offensive movie The Ridiculous Six, which coincidentally also will air on Netflix. They have entirely corned the market in racism and anti-racism.

It's almost like he's a conquering hero in the vein of a Don Johnson.

So why use all this plantation imagery if you aren't actually going to include any black people or make any other reference to slavery except the plantation gear and southern accents? The creators of Into the Badlands can't really be blamed for this bizarre mishmash of signification. I mean, were they to be expected to read Olaudah Equino or the provocative work of Phyllis Wheatley? There is no serious evidence that the people who wrote this show can read, period.

You know, a lot of people have been asking me what I thought of what happened at the University of Missouri this month. I settled down with a chai latte, in my finest robe, and read the list of demands that the black students there came up with. Nothing on their list seemed terribly drastic. I mean, I think they were asking for like ten percent of faculty to be professors of color and maybe for some outreach. The real reason the university fired their president was because the football team went on strike. It's only the university at fault that the threat worked.

They probably should have just cast Andrew Lincoln and saved us all the trouble.

I'm happy that Lee Daniels made some money off Empire before he totaled it like a car for the insurance money, but I still think about Roots. For my younger readers, Roots was a miniseries that actually contained some of what African people experienced when they were dragged from their homes to this country. It did huge ratings on television; everyone was really into it although it was probably never merchandised like it should have been.

Roots was succesful because it was nothing that had ever been seen on television. Now violence is pretty de rigeur. Daniel Wu is an amazing stuntman and he kills about forty people in the pilot of Into the Badlands alone. To his credit, he is upset about it afterwards. In the mishmash world of Into the Badlands there are no guns, so there is no credible reason that there would even be slaves. Guns enabled slavery to happen in the absence of overwhelming force.

African-Americans aren't the only victims of this tripe. A living woman does not appear until after twenty minutes of Into the Badlands. She is the wife of Martin Csokas' Baron character and she is portrayed by Irish actress Orla Brady. Her husband is cheating on her with this trollop —

Rest assured that in this dystopian future, there is an H&M.

— but she accepts the situation because such is the plight of women on Into the Badlands. Make no mistake, creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar want you to know this is a corrupt and dangerous world. There is a place of hope that Daniel Wu and his lisping protege M.K. (Aramis Knight) are planning on reaching; it is roughly based off the plot of the fifth season of The Walking Dead. Evil women are set on foiling the plans of these men. One such individual is the Widow (Emily Beecham), who murdered her husband for power.

Or Norman Reedus? That would have been fine, too.

I am somewhat skeptical that anything positive will come of this. Into the Badlands might occur in a terrible place and time in human history, but there is no evidence that its masters realize just how bad things are. If you have sensed the allegory I am making to the University of Missouri, you are probably next in line for your own AMC series.

"This is just an extended audition for another show, right? Otherwise I have a blog on Medium about how offensive this is ready to go."

The funny thing is that in a previous generation, college protestors asked for a complete turnover of a new world order and soldiers brought home from endless military engagement abroad. Now kids are only asking for the people driving around their campus with Confederate flags to be expelled, and that's too much. Perhaps they could include on their list of demands the cancellation of Into the Badlands. (The whole thing was in rather poor taste, although Daniel Wu's martial arts stunts were admittedly impressive.) It is no problem satisfying American youths today. I am ready to become the next president of the University of Missouri. That's an easy fucking job.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"Lonely One" - Anna Ternheim (mp3)

"Keep Me In The Dark" - Anna Ternheim (mp3)


In Which We Are The Most Sympathetic Character In The Affair

Into the Canyon


The Affair
creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi

The concept of a trigger warning was invented by the ancient Greeks, who placed cautionary notices before the most disturbing of Sophocles' plays. For the past 100 years white males who never served in the military have not required advanced warning of the flashbacks brought on by the consumption of descriptions or portrayals of traumatic acts.

Then came Noah Solloway (Dominic West), whose life is every white man's nightmare. Despite being married to an exciting, sexy woman named Helen (Maura Tierney) who had an ample trust find and creating four not-so-wonderful children with her, Noah was unhappy. He started up with a waitress named Alison (Ruth Wilson). The first season of The Affair largely consisted of the sex he had with her and how mediocre Alison's own marriage with Cody (Joshua Jackson) seemed in comparison to the intercourse. The first season ended with everything exposed and Noah wanting to be with his mistress full-time.

The second season of The Affair finds Noah and Alison living at a guest house secured by the publisher of his forthcoming book. As with the first season, The Affair reviews the same events from the different perspectives of each character. The first season limited this to Noah and Alison's viewpoints during their infidelity, but the second season includes their spurned partners in the story, Helen and Cody.

Tierney became well-known in the 1990s through roles on the sitcom Newsradio and ER. She was great as Noah's wife in season one, but we had trouble understanding who exactly she was, what she did that made it so easy for Noah to dump her for a younger, more sensual paramour. This season Helen Solloway has emerged as the signature star of The Affair, a performance that culminated in a masterful episode where she drank to excess, took a "pot lozenge", and accidentally crashed a car with her young children inside.

Amazingly, Helen came out of all this even more sympathetic than she has before. The Affair does a perfect job describing a phenomenon that has never before been accurately portrayed in the television medium: how something ostensibly good can be terrible, and something awful on the surface might actually be for the best.

Here is what I mean: in the wake of his separation from Helen, Noah seems to be doing everything right. He has finally finished his long-awaited second novel, Descent, and he is in a love relationship that actually pleases him. Due to Helen's accident and arrest, full co-custody of his children is granted to Noah, and his soon-to-be ex-wife is even paying his attorney's fees to defend him from a vehicular homicide charge. Things could not be going better for him.

Yet on the inside, Noah is corrupt. He goes to visit Alison at a yuppie retreat and fucks her up against a tree in an abrasive scene that rubs up against sexual violence in a disturbing way. When we aren't right in our love relationship, The Affair seems to be suggesting, everything else is destined to fall apart. Being white, rich and gorgeous, guys like Noah usually get away with his crimes, but watching The Affair, we know better. His punishment is his life.

As Alison, Ruth Wilson was a bit out of place in season one. She was so clearly not from Long Island that it was a bit silly to see her as a native Montauk girl. In season two, the show's writers have been able to dig a bit deeper into who she is, and Wilson has responded by massively improving her own acting. Because of the loss of her son (to secondary drowning) Alison was already the show's most sympathetic character, but she suffers even further here. The rich couple she works for treats her horribly, and Noah is barely better. She has not made the best choices, but plenty were made for her.

Dominic West also has been astonishing this season. He was always great at anguish, but here his Noah is often spare and repressed. When he becomes angry he is frightening, but we are not scared simply by the depth of his rage. Rather, it is more at his ability to manage his anger, to integrate it seemlessly into who he is.

Noah's friend Max pursues a relationship with his ex-wife without Noah's knowledge, and gives him $50,000 in order to expedite the process of their divorce so that he can be with Helen. When she is filled in on the plan, she rejects the entire premise, and is drawn closer to her ex-husband through the sudden illness of their son Martin.

The scenes in which Noah and Helen meet with a mediator to settle the distribution of their assets are filled with tension and excitement. The Affair is most captivating when it focuses on the little horrors, when it completely avoids the soapy revelations of the Rimes-universe. Simple things like going out for lunch are fraught with a kind of dread that other serial dramas fail to approach in screaming denouements.

West found success with his portrayal of the morally solid cop at the heart of HBO's The Wire, but in the role of Noah he has found something even more complex to sink into, to inhabit totally like a second skin. So many of the scenes where Noah discusses his view of writing are cringeworthy, but this is intentional — Noah is a semi-professional at everything, and there is no arena of his life where he feels completely at home.

Such a person — a fraud, but only sort of — is refreshing when we are used to seeing individuals at the peak of their powers. Even Don Draper, for being a distressing mess, did have some underlying speck of genius to salvage his life. Noah Solloway does not even have that.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Fields, No Body" - Matt Bauer (mp3)