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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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Entries in helen schumacher (23)


In Which These Are The Reasons She Was Shunned

The Oracle


But who knows what good might come from the least of us? From the bones of old horses is made the most beautiful Prussian blue.

- Joy Williams, Dimmer

There’s the pelican child. The orphan boy whose eyes ooze a milky substance. The girl named after the genus of crows and ravens, whose friends find her presence nearly as portentous as the birds’. The shallow boy who laughs in a noblesse oblige fashion. Kate who, even as a child, had the glimpse of extrication in her eyes. The stroke victim who dreams of thirst. The cowboy with the blood of lambs caked beneath his nails. Doreen the sorority girl who rubs self-tanner on her nipples. Deke the wino whose tight leather pants suggest no knob. Alice who has been told she gives the concept of carpe diem a bad name. Corinthian Brown who sleeps in the junkyard and has an unpleasant skin condition. The fitful lady in a bookstore ordering a copy of The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets so as to read about Coatlicue, the Aztec “protectress of lone women, of female outsiders who had powerful ideas and were therefore shunned.” God driving a pink Wagoneer. The piano player for hire, sly with a greedy body and wayward mind — in short, a pervert.

These are the characters that populate the work of Joy Williams. They can be cretinous and difficult to look in the eye. “Escapees from some pageant of atrocities” is how one critic described them. However, most aren’t miscreants, just daydreamers with primitive social skills. They love and yearn to be loved, but in a distorted, unbecoming, predaceous, careless way. A Williams character is often an orphan or an alcoholic or both. They spend a lot of time grieving in peculiar ways. They greet the suffering of others with ambivalence or, at best, curiosity. Their grip on reality is tenuous, making action and thought difficult to sort out.

Despite their vulgarities, her characters are endearing. They are more familiar but still comparable to those of the gothic menagerie: Flannery O’Connor’s Enoch Emery, Carson McCullers' jockey who dines on rose petals, Katherine Dunn’s family of geeks. Or Karen Russell. In her review of Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Williams could have been talking about herself when she complimented Russell on “the wily freshness of her language and the breezy nastiness of her observations.” Williams has a favorite way of carving out the details of her characters and their mise-en-scène. That is, through simile. She relies on it heavily, especially in her earlier work, but not to a fault. Her skill is such that I welcome each one. A long but not exhaustive list of my favorites: 

Freddie Gomkin’s wife, who had a face like an ewe, gave birth to twins in January, when everyone knew that poor Fred had been gelded in the war.

She could hear Tommy’s voice faintly in the air, but it seemed contained, as though in some heart’s chamber.

She touched her tiny ears, which looked as though they’d been grafted on in some long-ago emergency operation by an inappropriate donor.

Miriam had once channeled her considerable imagination into sex, which Jack had long appreciated, but now it spilled everywhere and lay lightly on everything like water on a lake.

The brandy rocked like mud in the paper cups.

The moss feels like Father’s hands, which were always very rough although there wasn’t any reason for their being so.

“Oh remember that my life is wind,” he kept bringing up like yesterday’s breakfast.

Spreading decline like a citrus tree.

Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place.

The rain was clattering like teeth in a cold mouth.

Gestating is like being witness to a crime. And I am furtive, I must admit.

The words so clear and useless like a mirror hung backward on a wall.

He had straddled the baby as it crept across the ground as though little Mal were a gulch he had no intention of falling into.

She began kissing his neck, sucking up the skin beneath her teeth as though she were chewing on an artichoke.

It is as though she had bones webbed in her throat.

Heartbreak surrounds her, though she seems unaware of it. She moves through it like a leaf, like a feather, like a falling piece of soot. It is as though she is living out some event that is not part of her life.

Everything in the world was slick and trembling like a gland, like something gutted, roped and dangling from a tree.

Words are macerated like bones being cleaned, and new meaning comes from the sentence assembled. Coca-Cola becomes an eccentricity. A palmetto bug becomes a widow’s amulet. A voice’s bitter tenor becomes the pith of a tree.

A practiced objectivity is necessary for Williams to successfully put together these similes where the pure and putrid hold hands. Critics and Williams herself have pointed out that the idea of “seeing things without preconception” often comes up in her writing. Besides aiding in her simile construction, this perspective is also key to how her characters relate to the world. It allows for the people, animals, and objects in her work to all share the same possibility of thought and emotion. To build on one of Williams’ phrases: Her attitude of impartiality allows for her work to navigate the straits between the living and the dead and the unliving and the undead.

This navigation is exemplified in Williams’ short story “Congress.” It begins with adorations for forensic anthropology professor Jack. His life is filled with praises from those who can finally move on now that Jack has reconstructed the last moments of a loved one’s life through hair and bone fragment. The pieces don’t fit together as well at home; while Jack is an expert gardener with prized rose bushes, his girlfriend Miriam has taken to stealing dying plants from supermarkets and lawns with the intention of nursing them back to health in their yard. Her attempts never thrive like Jack’s flowers.

The dynamic changes when Jack is severely disabled in a hunting accident. The accident is described in a slew of similes: “Then late one afternoon when Jack was out in the woods, he fell asleep in his stand and toppled out of a tree, critically wounding himself with his own arrow, which passed through his eye and into his head like a knife thrust into a cantaloupe. A large portion of his brain lost its rosy hue and turned gray as a rodent’s coat ... He emerged from rehab with a face expressionless as a frosted cake.” After the accident, Jack is doted on by the student who introduced him to hunting. The student, Carl, even replaces Miriam in the bedroom.

Now finding herself freed from Jack’s judgments, Miriam develops an affection for a wobbly lamp Jack made from deer hooves. They read together daily. (At one point, they argue over a book of verses. Amusingly the lamp finds it repellent that the verses confuse thought with existence.) And when Carl decides Jack needs a road trip through the Southwest, Miriam insists they also bring the lamp. In the end, Miriam and the lamp stay behind at one of the desert towns, home to a taxidermy museum, where she is asked by the taxidermist-in-residence to take over his duties of answering questions posed by tourists who come from all over seeking an oracle.

It’s a story brimming with Williams' favorite subjects — taxidermy, the desert, misfits, mortality — and in it the corpus has as much to say as the living; the people can be as impassive as the landscape. With prickly humor, she explores the desire for purpose, for meaning in life and death. That Williams doesn’t elaborate on motivations gives the story its poignancy.

In the early ‘80s, Joy Williams was sometimes lumped with the “Kmart Realists” — writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. It’s a descriptor that seems fit for a William Eggleston photograph, but Williams’ work is more analogous to Diane Arbus. It’s a glimpse of the underbelly of ordinary. John Barth called it cool-surfaced fiction. And indeed there is a distantness to Williams’ fiction. She doesn’t coddle our species. Hers is the writing of someone who loves humanity but refuses it authority.

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about recess.

"In the Backyard" - Henrietta (mp3)


In Which We Consider Them All Monsters

with Philip Roth

Veronica in the Extreme


Even after her death, her friends didn't hesitate to call her a monster. Veronica Geng, a contributor and fiction editor at the New Yorker during the '70s and '80s, was stubborn to a fault. Roger Angell, who was responsible for bringing Geng to the magazine, declared her the hardest person he ever had to edit. Best known as a humor writer, Geng's satire could be relentlessly brutal, but she wrote with a sui generis wit and dexterity that gave her work an extraordinary quality and had colleagues willing to look past her fierce temperament.

Geng joined the New Yorker in 1976 after a piece she wrote for the New York Review of Books, a film review written as a parody of Pauline Kael, got the attention of Angell. The short piece mocks Kael’s notoriously overenthusiastic review of Robert Altman's Nashville. In Geng's spoof the movie is called St. Pete, and Geng writes: "The picture’s a knockout. There’s nothing the matter with it. It's Altman’s farewell to the movies, with their Esperanto sensibilities, their bogus art and darling 'actors.' It's as if the whole sanctimonious-aesthete-in-tinsel-land scene bombed out ten years ago, and he’s the only one who’s noticed, or who's cared."

Veronica Geng (the surname is Alsatian) was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and spent much of her childhood in Philadelphia, where she lived with her younger brother and parents. Her father worked as an officer in the army's quartermaster corps and, in her teens, he moved the family around Europe — to Heidelberg, Munich, and then Paris. After high school graduation, Geng returned to the United States to study at the University of Pennsylvania (where she wrote her honors thesis on Seymour Glass) before moving to Manhattan and taking up with the city’s literary scene. Up until her breakthrough NYRB piece, Geng had been laboring away in book-editing gigs and composing freelance pieces for glossy women’s mags under the pseudonym Phyllis Penn.

with her brother

In 2007 Geng's brother, Steve, a career thief and drug addict, published a memoir about his junkie exploits and relationship with his sister. In it he describes Veronica as an extremely private, guarded girl who was endlessly rolling her eyes at those less quick-witted than her and who liked to make her brother laugh with impressions of the politicians of the McCarthy hearings. She was a dedicated student and reader, but still known to smuggle gin in perfume bottles on Girl Scout trips.

While Steve's memoir provides the rare account of Veronica's childhood, traces of the personalities and events that shaped it show up everywhere in her writing, in particular, the voice of her bullying father, an insecure man who hid behind military diction (an infantry manual was among the reference books Geng kept at her desk). As fellow New Yorker Ian Frazier, with whom she shared a deep, long-standing friendship, points out in the introduction to one of her collections, of all the voices Geng used in her writing, the voice of the overbearing American guy was the one she knew best. "She could be playful with the overbearing-guy voice, and she sometimes even celebrated it," Frazier wrote. "More often, though, she fiercely mocked it. Her contempt for it, and other contemporary stupidities, was withering. … She just understood better than the rest of us how coercive, how oppressive, such voices can be."

Undoubtedly, one of her greatest virtues was her manipulation of the voice of power. While most of us grow numb to its tyranny, she never lost her ear for it, nor her indignation at its pompousness. Often she executed her slick attacks by taking the quotes of politicians and placing them in a new context, exposing their asininity and hypocrisy. Fittingly, she claimed her two favorite books were Alice in Wonderland and the paperback collection of the Watergate transcripts.

"My Dream Team" begins with an epigraph from the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of Senator Arlen Specter questioning Hill as to why she never took exact notes on Thomas' sexual harassment, knowing that her "evidentiary position would be much stronger" if she had. In the piece, an assistant stealthily takes stream-of-consciousness notes (but with full attention to proper legal notation) while in conversation with a lecherous co-worker.

I hereby affirm that the person whose words I just wrote down while pretending to work and ignore him, and whose actions I intend to note insofar as I can see while feigning inattention and writing fast enough to keep up with his lohgh lhoggohr shit what a stupid word to pick under this kind of pressure his blabbering—I do solemnly swear and state that this person is one and the same Mr. Barry Sloat, co-worker and subject of Contemporaneous Notes Parts 1-85; and further I avow that this, Part 86, commences on October 6, 1995, 3:45PM, when Mr. Sloat made known his presence in my office doorway, whereupon I once again made Standard Warning Statement (as per Manual p.5) in conformance with EEOC Anti-Entrapment Guidelines (Attachment to Part 1) and then wrote down what he said, contemporaneously with his saying it. By the way (chance here to squeeze this in while Mr. Sloat pausing for dramatic effect enjoyed by him alone), I also attest that I am not type of woman who normally uses 'shit' as expletive, but crossing it out now might look as if I have something to hide.

Mr. Sloat resumed talking few seconds ago but only telling au pair anecdote again (#4: see Appendix A, Full Versions of Au Pair Anecdotes He Tells). Heeeeere's punch line!...

Geng cloaked sharp observations in nonsense, and sometimes nonsense was just nonsense. Her work could be as difficult as it was funny. In an article for New York magazine published upon the release of a posthumous edition of Geng's essays, Jennifer Senior wrote, "Geng was one of the writers [Wallace] Shawn hired during the sixties and seventies whose work was extravagantly intelligent but not always intelligible — 'extreme writers,' as his successor, Robert Gottlieb, so aptly called them, who would require time and faith to develop a constituency."

Initially given this time and faith, Geng thrived at the New Yorker, taking on a role as fiction editor. Frazier called her the best editor of humor pieces he had ever worked with. He has said, "I wrote humor pieces specifically for her to read, and when she didn't like them, as happened sometimes, I would be depressed for days and consider radical revisions of my entire life in order to make myself funny again." As an editor, she worked with Donald Barthelme (with whom she shared a knack for absurdist quips), Jamaica Kincaid, Roy Blount Jr., William Trevor, and Milan Kundera. Philip Roth came to depend on her as an unofficial editor for nearly all of his work.

In one of her best known shorts, "Love Trouble Is My Business", she draws inspiration from a quote by Village Voice columnist Geoff Stokes that commented on a Times article containing the line: "Subjects such as the Soviet Union seem to haunt Mr. Reagan the way vows to read Proust dog other Americans at leisure." Stokes' declaration that the Times article would be the only time the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" would appear in the same sentence inspired Geng to write a noir detective story using the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" in every sentence. It begins: "I glanced over at the dame sleeping next to me, and all of a sudden I wanted some other dame, the way you see Mr. Reagan on TV and all of a sudden get a yen to read Proust.” True enough! It later continues: “She chuckled insanely, like Mr. Reagan looped on something you wouldn’t want to drink while you read Proust. Then she touched me, with the practiced efficiency of a protocol officer steering some terribly junior diplomat through a receiving line to meet Mr. Reagan — and funny, but I got the idea she wasn’t suggesting we curl up and read Proust. As her hand slid along my thigh, I noticed that she wore a ring with a diamond the size of the brain of a guy who read Proust all the time, and if I'd been Mr. Reagan, I’d have been dumb enough to buy her another one to go with it.”

In her capable hands, what could have been a silly exercise in form was turned into a taunting and brilliant sketch. Geng commented on composing the piece, “What a gift! … Stokes’s premise was so ripe that even writing bad lines was fun — like making lists of improbable rhymes. ("It was too early to read Proust, so I went out and bought myself a pint of 'Mr. Reagan'.") … The title (which piggybacks on Chandler) has an extra meaning for me, because it's my business to love trouble."

Geng did not just love trouble, she created it. Her brother claims it was a favorite game of her and Frazier’s to slip inappropriate and senseless material past their editors. She fought bitterly with those who tried to edit her writing, yet she was heartless when she thought a friend's work wasn’t up to par. In 1992, a dispute with Tina Brown, who had recently been hired as editor of the New Yorker, led to Geng's departure from the magazine (whether she quit or was fired is up for debate). Her personal life could be similarly rocky; the scorn that was aimed at politicians and the ilk with great acuity in her writing was less charming when she directed it at her friends and lovers.

Geng never married, instead preferring to be the mistress to professional athletes, actors, musicians, and other writers. Mark Singer, another New Yorker staffer whom she dated, said, "She was one of the most feminine women I ever met. In her posture, her figure, her walk..." Her most significant relationship was with the photographer James Hamilton. It was Hamilton who would arrange her memorial service after she died from a grapefruit-sized brain tumor on Christmas Eve 1997.

It may have been characteristic of Geng's writing to adopt the voices of others, but she did it with flair and humor distinctly her own. From those voices, she crafted work the reader could crawl into — her essays smug shelter from bland hegemony. Her brother recalls a conversation with Roger Angell after her death when Angell told him: "When people as different as Veronica come along, everything changes. Veronica changed humor because there was nobody like her. Your sister was so passionate about the work she did here she changed all of us."

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Jitter" - Grace Mitchell (mp3)


In Which We Were Most Certainly Raised As A Child



creator Mickey Fisher

In the new Extant, Molly Woods is an astronaut who has returned from a year-long solo space mission pregnant. The show boasts the star power of Halle Berry in the lead and Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, but not much else. While it is too early to tell whether Extant’s space mysteries and conspiracies will offer viewers intrigue, the show's beginnings mostly amount to cyber fluff. 

Extant opens with Molly’s welcome home party. Molly (Berry doing what she can with the role) is in the bathroom puking, her son Ethan is beating up another child, and her husband John, played by Goran Visnjic, is barbecuing in a cardigan. Besides being an avid fan of cable knits, John Woods is an engineer working in the field of artificial intelligence who built Ethan after the couple was unable to conceive. Ethan is a prototype Humanich, an android who learns how to be human by being raised as a child.

The next day John brings Ethan as show-and-tell for a funding presentation. Self-righteous declarations about morals and souls abound, and his request is denied when the company’s board learns there is no kill switch for the androids. Or because Humanichs is a horrible name. 

Meanwhile Molly is back at ISEA headquarters, a private-sector version of NASA, learning of her pregnancy. In a flashback at the doctor’s office, we see her aboard the space station as a solar flare triggers a mechanical failure and Molly is visited by the apparition of a former lover. He’s unable to string together words to form a sentence, but possesses the ability to impregnate Molly with the touch of his finger. It’s an interstellar homage to Michelangelo's classic Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of Adam.

Molly awakens after the encounter in a panic and deletes the videotaped evidence of her hallucination, which arouses the suspicion of her employers back on Earth. After a few cryptic references to a deceased astronaut who also was affected by a “solar flare” while on a mission, the ISEA decides to keep a close eye on Molly. Lucky for them the Yasumoto corporation that funds the agency is the same corporation John was hoping to get money from. Yasumoto circumvents the board’s decision and offers him the money personally. They also tap Molly’s conversations with her company-appointed psychologist.

Back on the domestic front, Molly attempts to reconnect with her family are faltering. She interrupts Ethan practicing his emotional intelligence in front of a mirror with a trip for ice cream in the park. Precocious and doe-eyed, the child really delivers the uncanny valley. (Ethan is played by Pierce Gagnon, the boy who nailed creepy in the movie Looper.) After a mysterious note spooks Molly, she tries to leave. Ethan runs away and, it’s insinuated, snaps a bird’s neck in retaliation.

The episode ends with Molly back at home. She is taking out the trash when a shadowy figure appears in the driveway. It’s Harmon Kryger, the astronaut who supposedly committed suicide after finishing a mission like Molly’s. “Trust no one,” he whispers before disappearing back into the hedges. 

In effect, both Molly and her husband have been impregnated by their imaginations: John through his robotic work (his workshop looks like it could have belonged to Jim Henson) and Molly through her space hallucination. It’d be fitting for a show attached to the Spielberg name to make precious the imagination. The show as a metaphor for what human creativity could birth in the future would give it the gravitas network dramas often lack. Alas, this is doubtful. Extant has no imagination of its own. Its pastiche sci-fi terrain is already well mapped.

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Device 6.

The Best of Helen Schumacher on This Recording Is Yours

Her time at recess & LHOTP

Which of the following images do you think represents this game?

The career of June Mathis

It was all a means of divination

Falling victim to the gory seductions of Clouzot

The life and death of Veronica Geng

Joy Williams oozes a milky substance

"Atom to Atom" - Klaxons (mp3)

"There Is No Other Time" - Klaxons (mp3)