Arts & Entertainment

New York Review of Books: Three Brief Encounters

New York Review of Books:

Since Saturday July 21, 2018, we have published 204 interviews with writers in our Saturday “Brief Encounters” newsletter. This week, given the evanescence of the Internet and the rapid turnover of our e-mail inboxes, we are resurfacing three of those conversations. Fintan O’Toole, Hari Kunzru, and Namwali Serpell are regular contributors to The New York Review, each most recently published in our pages this summer. Their interviews, which jump from theater to inhumanity, from spouses to ethics, reflect the breadth of their tastes and the acuity of their criticism.

Fintan O’Toole, who most recently wrote about the legacy of Ireland’s abortion ban for our 2022 Summer Issue, has been writing for the Review since 1998, on everyone from Wallace Shawn to Angela Merkel, and everything from the Troubles to venereal disease. He found one of his most enduring subjects in Boris Johnson, who he has analyzed and profiled on three occasions, including an essay in our June 10, 2021, issue, “The King of Little England,” which occasioned this interview about politics, theater, criticism, and where the three come together.

I grew up with the cold war and in that very divided intellectual climate where you had, on the one hand, the evils of Stalinism and, on the other, the United States doing terrible things in Vietnam, Cambodia, and then in Latin America. You were supposed to choose between them. It was crucial to me to discover writers who forced you to think more broadly and deeply about the way power worked in the world: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, George Orwell, Susan Sontag—all those who were at once urgently engaged and undogmatic.

Hari Kunzru, whose essay “Socialists on the Knife-Edge” just appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue, first wrote for our pages in February 2019, with a review of Fintan O’Toole’s “acid and entertaining examination” of the British ruling class. Since then, Kunzru has essayed Masha Gessen, 4chan, and the specifically American cruelty of family separation policies for immigrants. This last was the topic of his interview on June 12, 2021, in which he talked about paranoia, conspiracy, and the moral ambiguities of fiction.

Childhood innocence carries a powerful political potential, The impulse to protect the innocent feels morally unquestionable, and if it’s yoked to some other project, whether that’s freeing slaves or storming a dungeon under a pizza restaurant, it can rouse people to action…. It’s not about any children in particular. It’s this hit, this clarifying experience of salvific agency.

Namwali Serpell’s last article for our pages—from the 2022 Fiction Issue—was, all at once, a review of the film Zola, a consideration of women and prostitutes in the works of Émile Zola, and a disquisition on the figure of the Whore in art and on the Internet. This capacious, digressive, and playful style has been on display in the Review since 2017, when she wrote about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and language. She has also covered Sun Ra and photography; the film The Favourite; and, in March 2021, Black women, Saartjie Baartman, Kara Walker, genitalia, scientific racism, and the Internet. This last piece—bold, profane, funny—inspired an interview the very next day, in which Serpell talked about the pandemic, Twitter, desire, and puns.

The joy of writing is famously ambivalent! For me, however, what curdles the joy isn’t the bitterness of the labor of writing as such. Rather, it is the difficulty of capturing my joy in words that will explain and perhaps even transmit that joy to others. This is the ambivalence of joy beset by futility

For everything else we’ve been publishing, visit the Review’s website. And let us know what you think: send your comments to editor@nybooks.com; we do write back.

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