Begin, for once, with the ending: the arms at an awful angle, the face blue-lipped above a blot of blood. Only later do we glimpse the woman who corresponds to the corpse. She laughs in a flashback. Or she smiles in the photograph pinned to the board where the police map the murders with thumbtacks, charting tangled speculations with lines of yarn. In light of her death, she comes to life. This is the antiordering typical of the serial killer procedural, a narrative scramble that begins with the answer and ages back toward the question. In the television series Hannibal (NBC, 2013–15), a convicted murderer impales a nurse in prison. He snaps at the officers who come to question him, “I was caught red-handed. There’s no mystery as to who done it. I did it!” Still, the officers insist that they have something to ask.
We know who did it, but the mystery of motive remains. It recurs in the spate of serial killer dramas that have proliferated in recent years, multiplying as fast as the gruesome murders we watch so raptly each week. In Mindhunter (2017–), a Netflix series set in the mid-seventies, a professor of behavioral science at the FBI Academy observes that murder has become inscrutable. In the past, people killed each other for reasons: The culprit was always the jilted lover or the cheated business partner, the cuckolded husband or the scheming heir. To solve the puzzle, we only had to track the reasons back to their sources. But beginning in the seventies, when “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz shot six people “because a dog told him to,” the killer became “a black hole.” “Where do we go,” the professor asks, “when motive becomes elusive?”
For four seasons, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been hosting the genealogy television show Finding Your Roots. In each episode, Mr. Gates presents celebrities with a book full of research into their ancestry, drawing from genealogical records and genetic tests. On a recent show, Mr. Gates introduced the actor Ted Danson to one of his 18th-century ancestors, Oliver Smith of Connecticut. Mr. Danson learned how Mr. Smith defended his seaside town against the British during the Revolutionary War.
Mr. Danson proudly patted the page that chronicled Mr. Smith’s heroics. “Well done, well done,” he said. “I never imagined a one-of-me’s out there in the revolution.”
But when Mr. Danson turned to another page in his ancestry book, his mood swiftly shifted. Now he discovered that Oliver Smith bought a slave named Venture.
Mr. Danson fell silent. Mr. Gates tried cheering him up by pointing out that Mr. Smith later allowed Venture to purchase his own freedom.
It isn’t tempting to write about Elon Musk in that it is easy but in that it is an event that few thought we could witness live: a successful businessman letting his true inner recklessness show. All that Musk has done is lose composure – but sadly for him, the window he opened into his mind exposed something unsavoury and disappointing. It is tempting to write about Musk because we can for once stop speculating about how it is that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs cut from the same cloth as Musk and Peter Thiel think, and take a break from amassing piles of secondhand, implicative evidence. Now we have proof – and an opportunity to characterise the psyche of this odiously powerful class of world society.
For the uninitiated: Vern Unsworth was one of the expert divers who helped rescue the young Thai football team and its coach from the cave they had been trapped in. In an interview published over the weekend, he called Musk’s offer to help with a small submarine a “PR stunt”. Musk responded on Twitter with an ad hominem, calling Unsworth a “pedo”, short for pedophile, and following it up with “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”. These tweets were deleted shortly after.
From all that he has said and done over the last few months, it is evident that Musk thinks he should be celebrated more than he is and criticised less. But like a big baby, every time Musk does say such things, he is taken less and less seriously – or more by those looking for a spectacle. When someone doesn’t agree, Musk lashes out in abusive ways. His disgusting potshot at Unsworth is just the latest example and isn’t out of line with previous salvos.
In recent years, Flann O’Brien has often been characterised as the third member of the sacred trinity of Irish modernism, the Holy Ghost to James Joyce’s God the Father and Samuel Beckett’s God the Son. If so, he shares with the Holy Ghost a certain vagueness as to his identity: the press release that accompanies this book refers to him as ‘O’Nolan, or O’Brien, or Myles nagCopaleen or whatever his name may be’. Of these three personas, the first was a civil servant, the second a novelist and the third a satirical columnist for the Irish Times. Although they inhabited the same body, their relations were not always cordial: Flann O’Brien was effectively held hostage by his journalistic rival for two decades between the efflorescence of early novels and his re-emergence with The Hard Life (1961).
Expertly edited by Maebh Long, these letters are concerned largely with the travails of the jobbing writer. O’Brien was fascinated by St Augustine, but there are few confessions here: vitriol excepted, emotional candour is not his strong suit. Writing was a battle for O’Brien, and almost from the outset the career arc we follow is downward.
If a novel is especially immersive, if the voice of its narrator is sufficiently consistent and evocative, the world it describes may come to life in picturesque color. I say picturesque, rather than vivid, because a novel’s dominant colors may not be entirely lifelike; they may be closer to the rich oils of Rembrandt or the downy pastels of Degas. Such colors suggest life but also remind us of art’s mediating presence. Jacek Dehnel’s lush debut novel, Lala, for instance, is awash in the sepia tones of old photographs, a few of which punctuate the text. Like an old family album, assembled by an eccentric relative with an artistic bent, Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack.
John Edgar Wideman’s profound new book begins, as it must, with the American Civil War. The first story in this collection, “JB & FD” imagines a kind of conversation between two of the most important figures of that conflict, the white anti-slavery crusader John Brown, hanged in December 1859 for treason, murder, and inciting slave insurrection, and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself been born enslaved.
The story begins as historical fiction but swiftly moves away from the conventional, its ten sections shifting between the voices not only of Brown and Douglass but also that of the author himself, looking out of a motel window on a snowy morning, trying to imagine himself into his characters’ lives. He considers John Brown as a boy, driving cattle through a blizzard: “I compare his predicament to mine, and I’m ashamed.”
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Over this ecstatic high summer, visitors to the Haworth parsonage museum will be able to watch a film that simulates the bird’s-eye view of Emily Brontë’s pet hawk, Nero, as he swoops over the moors to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse that is the putative model for Wuthering Heights. You’ll be able to listen to the Unthanks, the quavery Northumbrian folk music sisters who have composed music in celebration of Emily’s 200th anniversary. If that’s not enough, you can watch a video installation by Lily Cole, the model-turned-actor-turned-Cambridge-double-first from Devon, which riffs on Heathcliff’s origins as a Liverpool foundling. Finally, Kate Bush, from Kent, has been busy on the moors unveiling a stone. In short, wherever you come from and whoever you are, you will find an Emily Brontë who is sufficiently formless yet endlessly adaptive to whatever you need her to be – a rock, a song, a bird in flight.
That’s assuming, of course, that you are female. Nearly all the activities mentioned in connection with the forthcoming anniversary of her birth on 30 July involve women as makers, demonstrators, celebrators and educators. Likewise, nearly all Emily Brontë’s biographers and scholars over the past century have been women. If you do spot a man in the mix, chances are that he has been shuffled off to the side, rather like Branwell Brontë, though hopefully without the urge to get drunk and set fire to himself. The only other author who has become the object of such an intense female pash in the last 200 years is Sylvia Plath, who happens to be buried less than 10 miles away from Haworth at Heptonstall. The parallels are uncanny. Separated by a century, both Brontë and Plath were poets who remain most famous for writing a single intensely autobiographical novel. There’s even a pleasing bit of intertextuality in the way that in 1956 Sylvia Plath actually managed to marry Heathcliff in the form of her own glowering man-of-the-moors, Ted Hughes. Together the newlyweds tramped up to Top Withins and wrote poems about it, an event that Hughes was still mulling over 40 years later in his valedictory Birthday Letters. Both Plath and Brontë died at the age of 30 and then only gradually started to attract the cult-like devotion of female fans, who responded rapturously to their heroines’ status as exiles from the twin kingdoms of heteronormative happiness and literary fame.
It was barely two hours into Day 1 of AlienCon and 500 years of accepted history and science were already being tossed out. Three thousand people had gathered inside the Civic Auditorium here for a panel discussion featuring presenters from “Ancient Aliens,” a History Channel documentary series. Everyone had questions: about whether we were alone in the universe; about what our government really knows; about humanity’s very origins. One of the network’s most popular and longest-running shows (Season 13 resumed on July 20), “Ancient Aliens” is itself a series of questions. Many are posed rhetorically by an unseen narrator intoning over a wide shot of a rubbly archaeological site. According to the show’s talking heads, extraterrestrials may have had a role not only in the extermination of the dinosaurs, but also in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.
Carl Sagan, the popular scientist who captivated television audiences of the 1970s and ’80s, once said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
But Mr. Sagan has been dead for years, and many Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas. There has been a resurgence of the flat-earth theory. More than a few believe that global warming is a hoax, that survivors of mass shootings are crisis actors. Yet for many at the conference, and elsewhere, this is not simply a political divide. We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor). What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low. And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.
Wouldyou say a few things about your family background.
My family belonged to the Khattar tribe in the Attock District. It was a landed family. Genealogists traced its descent from the 11th-century Rajputs whose conversion to Islam began a hundred years later, boosted by intermarriage with the offspring of marauding Muslim adventurers from the North. It was completed two centuries before the Mughals arrived. The head of the clan had the right to keep ten thousand men under arms. By the mid 19th century the family had become a laboratory example of a decaying aristocracy quarrelling over property. Absentee landlordism further complicated matters. My parents, for instance, had no idea how much land they owned but it was a hell of a lot since its sale kept them going for a long time.
Initially both my grandfathers belonged to the faction that supported the British. The big divide in the family began during the Sikh wars, with one side supporting the Sikhs and the other the British. With the first Indian war of independence in 1857 (known in English history books as the Mutiny) there was the same division. I used to think, cynically, that the top echelons of the family did this deliberately: support both sides so that whichever faction of the ruling class wins, the family never loses. That was often the case. Not this time.
In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, named Cohl Furey rented a car and drove six hours south to Pennsylvania State University, eager to talk to a physics professor there named Murat Günaydin. Furey had figured out how to build on a finding of Günaydin’s from 40 years earlier — a largely forgotten result that supported a powerful suspicion about fundamental physics and its relationship to pure math.
The suspicion, harbored by many physicists and mathematicians over the decades but rarely actively pursued, is that the peculiar panoply of forces and particles that comprise reality spring logically from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers called “octonions.”
As numbers go, the familiar real numbers — those found on the number line, like 1, π and -83.777 — just get things started. Real numbers can be paired up in a particular way to form “complex numbers,” first studied in 16th-century Italy, that behave like coordinates on a 2-D plane. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing is like translating and rotating positions around the plane. Complex numbers, suitably paired, form 4-D “quaternions,” discovered in 1843 by the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who on the spot ecstatically chiseled the formula into Dublin’s Broome Bridge. John Graves, a lawyer friend of Hamilton’s, subsequently showed that pairs of quaternions make octonions: numbers that define coordinates in an abstract 8-D space.
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”
“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them.” Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting!
Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly.
“I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”
What Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.
But according to Dweck and others, that advice is steering people wrong.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, he grew up just north of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, New York. He did what lots of kids in his neighborhood were doing in the late Seventies and Eighties: He spent his time rolling on the floor laughing to comics like Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor.
Later, after college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, he decided to try stand-up himself. Hecklers were a problem.
In upscale white clubs where he sometimes performed, audiences would clap politely if his jokes missed. Not so much in the Brooklyn clubs he worked. The mostly black audiences there let him have it when he was off.
“Black folks always want to get involved in the act, you know what I’m saying?” he recalls, laughing. “Then you gotta respond with some ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes just to get them to sit down and shut up.”
Over a decade later, after some major life changes – he’d converted to Islam and found himself working as a TV reporter in the Middle East under his new name, Bilal Abdul Kareem – he again drew upon his stand-up experience to stay alive. Only he wasn’t worried about dying on stage this time. This time it was more serious.