Jenny Hendrix

Things I've written, mostly.

NW, at the SF Chronicle

The London of Zadie Smith’s long-awaited fourth novel, called “NW” after the northwest corner of the city - also the author’s home - is a fluid, mercurial thing. More than a city, it’s a city’s consciousness she’s written here. But while her novel maps its lurches and veerings, it also uncovers a fixedness - the way places never really change except in how, and by whom, they are read. “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast,” Smith writes, and yet it is the thing that’s aware - that “we” and “you” and “I” and the rest - in which she’s interested here.

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Life During Wartime, at the Forward

One interesting thing about a 70-year war is that, for those fighting it, it’s no longer interesting at all. Violence is just another form of monotony. Exhausted and dull of spirit, the soldier tries to keep herself awake “with sex, with hurt, with shocking newspaper articles, sometimes.” This, at least, is Israel’s war as Shani Boianjiu paints it in her elegantly written debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” the story of three girls coming of age — if you can call it that — in the Israeli Defense Forces. More than that, though, the 25-year-old Boianjiu, drawing on her own years with the IDF, has written the story of a people’s resignation to living in a world that’s been strange for so long, they can no longer remember how strange it is.

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On Parade

The town that I grew up in holds what people like to call, with a kind of pride in poverty, the World’s Shortest Parade on the fourth of July. A number of small towns make similar claims, but our parade, next to the beach on Maxwelton Road in Clinton, Washington, deserves it. From the field by the old Steiner farm it continues just two blocks, ending at Dave Mackie park, where a series of foot, sack, and three-legged races are run and the national anthem sung. It’s not required to register in advance to march; one simply arrives and lines up in either a motorized or non-motorized line. This year, the parade’s ninety-seventh iteration, the lineup included a number of dogs, a few Republicans, one guy in a gorilla suit, many bikes (some of them “Occupied”) and a truck full of violinists. As we waited for the start, a bored-looking high school baseball team called the Crabs slouched, chins in hand, on their hay bales, and a grandmotherly woman in a mermaid costume had her picture taken with one of two groups of pirates.

The elderly mermaid recalled the parade I’d been to at Coney Island just a week or two before—a different sea creature altogether, though the two shared a spirit of outlandish regionalism, that freak-flag-flying of place. I tried to cross Surf Avenue behind the parade and found myself buffaloed into a series of barricades, pressed between a big man in a too-small thong and an overwhelmed trash can. Watching the floats inch down the street over someone’s wig, I began to wonder what it was we saw in this custom. Certainly the metaphorical use of the word parade—as to describe, for instance, a haughty way of walking through a room or any series of nasty things (vices, celebrities, horrors) being overtly displayed in succession—points toward an underlying cultural ambivalence about the whole thing. [Read more…]

Review of "The Chaperone" in the NY Times Sunday Book Review

Early on in “The Chaperone,” Laura Moriarty’s fourth novel, it becomes clear that Cora Carlisle is fighting a losing battle. Her charge is Louise Brooks, soon-to-be silent-film star and something of a force of nature. As the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, Brooks was “a creature of impulse, a creator of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy, … with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious.” Moriarty’s Louise is only 15, a Jazz Age lost girl playing uncertainty as brashness, but impulse and temptation are already in bloom. [Read more…]


Hiker’s hut in Valais, Switzerland. Submitted by Matthias Smith.


Hiker’s hut in Valais, Switzerland. Submitted by Matthias Smith.

Murder Most Lovely

at The Forward

The success of the tabloid — epitomized but not monopolized by the besieged citadel of Murdoch — relies, for the most part, on two things: the rhythmic titillation of its headlines, and eye-catching photographs of things not meant to be seen. Writing, it need not be said, is beside the point. Flip through the pages of the Daily News, the New York Post or their down-market cousins, and you encounter a rogue’s gallery of surprised, embarrassed, pained and grotesque faces. Here are transgressive views of not only Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and their ilk, but of the victims, perps and pervs that make up the ranks of the common man.

If these glimpses of our culture are escapist, nihilistic and prurient, they are also morality plays of a kind. Tabloid snaps encourage both shame and the kind of rubbernecking that one was forced to do in person prior to the advent of the tabloid press. The May 17 TMZ headline, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Surfaces at Death House,” and its accompanying photo of the bereaved looking shifty and overexposed (in every sense), feeds both the need to gawk at death and the thrilling sense of shame produced by that very act of gawking.  [Read more…]

"Among the Automata" at TPR Daily

By now, the entire Internet is aware that last month A/V technicians at Coachella resurrected Tupac for a performance with Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre. Though a little phosphorescent, the rapper seems lifelike enough in the videos, with his Timberlands and rather nice abs. Cumulatively, though, the effect, especially when (living) Snoop is in the frame, is, above all else, weird. Watching the virtual Pac unintentionally moonwalk across the stage, we might think of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Sandman”: “Aha! Pretty doll! Spin round, lovely doll!” Not as odd a juxtaposition as it may seem: as Gizmodo reports, the effect was produced by means of a nineteenth-century trick called “Pepper’s Ghost.”

The nineteenth century represents the tail end of humanity’s fascination with the mechanical replication of itself. Much effort had been expended in that direction the century prior, in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, where the automata builders lived and worked. That the word automata comes from an economical Greek verb for “acting of one’s own will” points somewhat toward the source of the period’s fascination with them; miming organic processes, these machines seemed to be animated by something beyond gears and wires. Actually, they were operated by clockwork: linkages or rods in the body connected to a set of cams, irregular wheels concealed in the object’s base or body. The cams served as the object’s “memory” turning in circular motion—a winding key, for instance—into linear, transposing mechanics into something resembling life. Automata were, as Freud put it, in his essay on the uncanny, unlike us enough to be at once familiar and strange, or at least “secretly familiar.” It was uncertain whether they were really doing what they appeared to be, whether they lived, whether they had something resembling a soul. But like Tupac, automata were reproducible, replaceable, and performed the same actions again and again. There were also many copies, quite a few of which still survive. [Read more…]

"Erratic Mothering," at LARB

I WAS HAVING TROUBLE writing about cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s book about writing a book about her mom. A graphic memoir like her first book, Fun Home, it seemed a remarkably self-sufficient thing: difficult, exciting, alive. On each meticulously constructed page, Bechdel had layered word and illustration into something rich and complex. It cohered like a dream, with symbols and referents that made luminous sense inside its own context, but which just might crumble when removed. Like a dream, the book seemed almost too perfect to touch.

An attempt to say anything about it, furthermore, was going to require a foray into the amniotic waters of psychoanalysis — into The Piggle's horrifying “babacar,” for starters — a place I wasn't sure I wanted to go. This is my mother’s fault, really; she got a degree in psychology just after being married, and a shelf-full of Jung in the divorce. I’d been writing myself in circles for several hours when she called.

"Well," she said when I told her, and I could almost hear her eyes light up: "can help with that!” [Read more…]