September's Best Books, Albums, Film, and TV
We reviewed Kristin Dombek's latest book, Donald Glover's refreshingly off-kilter series, a newly-released Kenji Mizoguchi film, and more.
These reviews appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
THE SELFISHNESS OF OTHERS: AN ESSAY ON THE FEAR OF NARCISSISM
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"We know the new selfishness when we see it," writes Kristin Dombek in her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, where she seeks to understand whether—as countless psychologists, journalists, bloggers, and others have proclaimed—we are living through an epidemic of self-worship. At the time Dombek is writing, as she puts it in mesmerizing, deceptively simple prose:
The app is Tinder, selfie has been declared the word of the year, and a study has come out showing that our language is more self-centered than ever before. You can see it in song lyrics, in novels, and in nonfiction. American writers are using I and me 42 percent more than they did in 1960... It's a winter when it's easy enough to find oneself hunched over one's computer screen, locked in horrified gaze at the self-adoration of others, and look up to find one's friends talking on and on about themselves, their words frozen and repeating "I," "I," "I." Listening to them, wondering if they even remember you exist, is like watching Narcissus bent over that still pool in Ovid's myth, stuck in the inaugural selfie.
But for Dombek, it's far from clear whether we do actually know narcissism at all and what precisely we are seeing when we describe a supposedly new level of self obsession. Dombek, whose essays have appeared in n+1 and the Paris Review, begins with the DSM, which defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy." But, like the first analysts, she grounds her book in case study, exploring archetypes of the widely varying kinds of people who seem to be most often described as narcissists: the bad boyfriend, the millennial, and the murderer.
The bad boyfriend is exemplified by Tucker Max, a hero in a "movement among men to obtain power over women by insulting them and regularly withdrawing or disappearing," a man who, as Dombek amusingly describes, gets a blowjob from a girl who is about to go on a date with someone else, falls in love with his own reflection when he is drunk and dancing at a club, and later wakes up with a dog turd in his hair. The millennial is Allison, who, when she was a teen on My Super Sweet 16, insisted on having a parade that involved shutting down a street with a major hospital entrance. And though the murderer is never named, we know from Dombek's inclusion of the most horrifying details that he is Anders Behring Breivik, who stands in for "all the murderers [who] now post on Facebook before they walk into schools and movie theaters with guns, as if a moment's celebrity is worth any human life, even their own."
In her examination and dissection of each type, Dombek weaves in a review of literature on the study of narcissism, drawing variously on psychology, philosophy, literature, and pop culture. She questions many of our received ideas about narcissism, often underlining their absurdity. Freud's theory that only straight men are able to love others selflessly, while gay men and most women love narcissistically, "treating others as mirrors of who they are or were, or would like to be," was, Dombek notes, something Freud developed while experiencing the romantic rejection of one of his closest friends, Wilhelm Fliess. And she actually interviews Allison, the spoiled millennial (now no longer 16), who, on closer inspection, seems less monstrous, admitting that she only participated in My Super Sweet 16 to please her father, that the party was much more about him than her.
This brings us to the heart of Dombek's book. Ultimately, she's not so much scrutinizing each type of narcissist as she is analyzing the supposedly non-narcissistic person's interest in them. At the center of this essay is Dombek's exploration of the "healthy" person's relationship with the narcissist: our fear of him and our belief that our moment may be particularly marked by narcissism. The driving force of The Selfishness of Others is the way in which Dombek carefully dissects the anatomy of this particular moral panic. Fear, after all, is necessarily just as much about the terrified as the terrorizing. In her gorgeous, sinuous writing, where each sentence complicates itself, sometimes suggesting its own antithesis, she questions the notion that the fear of the pathological narcissist and narcissism itself are so different at all. We "live in a time so rampant with narcissisms," she writes, "so flush with false selves masquerading as real selves... a time so full of contagious emptiness, that ours is a moment in history that is, more than any other, absolutely exceptional." The joke is simple, and characteristic of the mordant irony laced throughout the book: To say that we live in a uniquely narcissistic time is itself an act of narcissism.
And, Dombek points out, when we read descriptions of pathological narcissism, like the one in the DSM, are we not sometimes reminded of "an entirely different person," i.e., ourselves? Who isn't subject to delusions of grandeur? Who doesn't crave the attention and affection of others?
A portrait of a moral panic is necessarily the story of a moment. Dombek does not explicitly discuss politics, but it's hard not to think that, at the end of this hot, depressing, almost apocalyptic summer, The Selfishness of Others might be particularly useful. After all, perhaps what scares us most about the cold, terrifying behavior displayed by the narcissist, Dombek suggests, is that we fear it comes from and lives within us, that there isn't as much of a divide as we would like. —SOFIA GROOPMAN
There's a period during childhood when the world takes on a wondrous terror. You can grasp the scope of life beyond your neighborhood, but the distance between you and whatever is "out there" seems insurmountable, and those who move freely between these zones do so with frightful authority. It's not that the outside world is cruel; it's that it is indifferent, and you are small. Inside, the follow-up to Playdead's 2010 breakthrough game Limbo, captures this feeling in a way not achieved since Spielberg's E. T.
Inside begins in medias res: You are an unnamed, unarmed child fleeing from men in suits—men with dogs and cars and guns— and you have no idea why. You are pursued across soggy rural landscapes and through the hard geometries of cities. Inside never stops to deliver straight exposition about this harsh, grim world, but it doesn't need to. Instead, each new "screen" of play communicates the setting through architectural, lighting, and puzzle design.
Like Limbo before it, Inside is a 2-D platformer that asks the player to use a combination of physics, timing, and wits to get past obstacles, avoid enemies, and hunt down hidden secrets. Though the characters and world are painted in flat colors and with minimal detail, everything moves with fluid, lifelike animation. It's an uncanny blend that makes it hard to relax. Bit by bit, as more of the game's sci-fi mystery comes into focus, your fearful ignorance matures into persistent curiosity: What are the strange devices hanging from the ceiling? What's that creature in the sea? That facility? You'll strive for answers even in the face of grotesque consequences for failure, and sometimes even more gruesome methods of success (including particularly morbid uses of mind control).
Inside lasts around four to five hours, but unlike so many recent games, each hour counts. Special attention should be paid to its final act, which, in an achievement of game design, fundamentally changes how the player interacts with the world. The shift is so kinetic and surprising—and original—that to say more would be to disarm its punch. While some might be frustrated by the lack of answers in the end—Inside may be a meditation on childhood, labor, science, or politics—the game artfully raises questions and leaves it up to the player to imagine his own chilling answers. —AUSTIN WALKER
The term "dark hardcore" seems deeply silly at first, but Trap Them's new album, Crown Feral, makes a pretty good argument for why we need it. The Boston/ Seattle troupe clawed their way to the upper echelons of this kind of music—known for its bleak atmosphere, punk grit, and black metal, crust, and doom influences—with an explosive 2011 debut for Prosthetic Records, Darker Handcraft, which was followed by the even wilder Blissfucker. Now, the group—made up of singer and songwriter Ryan McKenney, guitarist Brian Izzi, drummer Brad Fickeisen, and bassist Galen Baudhuin—have dropped Crown Feral, a remorseless bruiser of an album augmented by legendary producer (and Converge guitarist) Kurt Ballou's deft touch behind the mixing board. You could write a sonnet about the guitar tone on this beast, but I'll spare you. Rest assured, that crunchy, metallic stomp (Swedish death-metal fans, take note) is present and accounted for, balanced out by a hulking doom and howling D-beat. The heavy, churning paranoia on tracks like "Twitching in the Auras" and the breakneck, cutthroat "Revival Spines" snap and menace with far more groove than one might expect; the whole record is bizarrely catchy and eminently headbangable. —KIM KELLY
Donald Glover's refreshingly off-kilter series, Atlanta, follows the fortunes of rapper Paper Boi as he begins to make a name for himself with an eponymous local hit (which, to the show's credit, is just stupid, catchy, and familiar enough to be plausible). Glover plays his cousin and would-be manager Earn, who is tenuously employed hawking frequent-flier cards in the airport and even more tenuously attached to Van, the mother of his young daughter. The show's tone shifts abruptly in the space of a scene or a plotline; one episode toggles between Earn and Van on an awkward date and a drug deal between Paper Boi and the members of the real-life Atlanta rap trio Migos, the latter of which is punctuated by a gruesome offhand murder. In another, a long day that Earn spends waiting to be booked at jail is played for laughs until a jarring moment of police brutality. The best performance belongs to Lakeith Lee Stanfield as Darius, a right-hand man with a gloriously unpredictable deadpan delivery. The show seems in no hurry to advance its road-to-fame premise, but I'd be content to watch these guys wander around town for quite a while before Paper Boi makes it big. —ANDREW MARTIN
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM
Kenji Mizoguchi, whom Jean-Luc Godard once called "the greatest of Japanese filmmakers," started directing films in the early 1920s. Between 1936 and his early death in 1956, he made what he considered his best work—films distinguished by long tracking shots that carry the viewer fluidly from scene to scene, as in a Japanese narrative painting. ("My films from now on," he once told his cinematographer, "should be... straight and irreversible like a hand scroll.") The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), newly released by Criterion in a restoration from Janus Films, is one such film, a period tragedy that centers on Kiku, a Meji-era kabuki actor who abandons his mentor and adoptive father—a famous actor—to elope with the household's working-class nursemaid, Otoku, the only one willing to be honest with Kiku about his shortcomings onstage. When the two go on the road with a touring company to make ends meet, Kiku turns abusive and cruel. Mizoguchi was drawn to self-sacrificing female characters, an interest inspired partly by memories of his sister, whom his family sold into prostitution when he was young. It's hard to keep this out of mind watching the desperate Otoku persuade Kiku's family to take him back into their company, knowing that she'll lose him if they do. —MAX NELSON
THE VIRGINITY OF FAMOUS MEN: STORIES
A celebrity, in Christine Sneed's formulation, is someone who would rather be who he is than someone else. The best stories in Sneed's second collection examine the tension between celebrities and schlubs. Sneed has been here before—most notably in her 2013 novel, Little Known Facts. In the title story, drawn from that novel's cast, Will introduces his girlfriend to his famous, philandering father. "Every woman he'd ever met had always abruptly fallen," Will reflects, for Renn's "bullying, jawdropping generosity." It is difficult for Will, too, to resist it. And yet he knows that, on some level, his father is an illusion; celebrity can't survive intimacy. Will's father invites everyone to call him by his first name, but that won't make him, in any real sense, knowable. Sneed is excellent on the poetry of glamour, how it holds up well from a distance and dissolves on approach. A celebrity is a Chuck Close painting: Up close, it's all dots. In "The Prettiest Girls," an aging casting director brings a Mexican extra back with him to LA. She's beautiful and hysterical, poor but entitled. When she leaves him for someone more attractive, more well-known, the narrator fumes. You can't fuck someone famous, he wants to tell her. You can only fuck his fame. —JAMIE FISHER
These reviews appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.