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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Terry Southern The Magic Christian (1959)

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‘The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock — shock is a worn-out word — but astonish. The world has no grounds whatever for complacency. The Titanic couldn’t sink, but it did. Where you find smugness, you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it.’ — Terry Southern

“I started reading The Magic Christian and I thought I was going to go insane… it was an incredible influence on me.” — Hunter S. Thompson

“Terry Southern is the illegitimate son of Mack Sennett and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” — Kurt Vonnegut

“Terry Southern is the most profoundly witty writer of our generation and in The Magic Christian he surpasses Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, a work similarly inspired by conventional wisdom’s serene idiocy.” — Gore Vidal

 

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Background

‘Among the many faces that grace the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there is one hidden by sunglasses. This is the writer Terry Southern, posted alongside his literary hero Edgar Allan Poe, and standing in the shadows at one of the pivotal pop moments of the decade. Throughout the Fifties beat period and the Sixties underground, Terry Southern was the Zelig of the Zeitgeist, often to be seen alongside the prime movers for whom he was a hipster, tipster and catalyst.

‘”Terry was still terminally hip when he died at 71,” says his New York agent Jimmy Vines. “He was turning everyone on to Beavis and Butthead.” Just before he died of cancer in 1995, Southern pulled off his oxygen mask, sat up in his hospital bed and asked his son Nile, “What’s the delay?”

‘The obituaries may have been shorter and fewer than those that have followed in the wake of Allen Ginsberg’s demise, but the credits that Southern clocked up provide the bigger clue to the counter-culture of the time. He was a screenwriter on Easy Rider, Barbarella, Dr Strangelove. His name is along the spine of the inspired satirical novels Candy, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie. Gore Vidal described Terry Southern as “the wittiest writer of our generation”. Candy, written with Mason Hoffenberg in 1958, paved the way for the parodic porn of Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Philip Roth’s onanist’s handbook Portnoy’s Complaint, a decade later.

The Magic Christian chronicles the jokes and schemes of a billionaire who believes that there is nothing so disgraceful or degrading that someone won’t do it for money. Guy Grand’s schemes include creating “Stealth”, the deodorant that “cuts away body odour like a knife”. It made for a shambolic movie, but Southern’s book is regarded as his masterpiece. Dennis Hopper described Guy Grand as “the 20th-century figure that has most inspired me”. This became apparent long after he collaborated with Southern and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. “Hopper and Fonda have always wanted to make that film entirely their own, even now,” according to Nile Southern. “Fonda called my father a year before he died, offering him $30,000 to take his name off the credits.”

‘The actor Peter Sellers bought several hundred copies of The Magic Christian to give as Christmas presents, and demanded to have Terry Southern as his scriptwriter on Dr Strangelove. During the production, Stanley Kubrick and Southern found themselves watching a porn film that had fallen into their hands. It provided the inspiration for Blue Movie, as Kubrick pondered over the idea of a porn film born of the hand and eye of an auteur, using beautiful people and state-of-the-art equipment.

‘In the last 20 years of his life, apart from a stint as staff writer on Saturday Night Live in the early Eighties, Southern returned full-time to journalism. “Many have said that in his last decades his talent caved into drink,” says Darius James. “I knew otherwise. His archives show an outstanding output of work. He was the John Coltrane of American literature.”‘ — Michael Collins

 

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Gallery


w/ The Rolling Stones


w/ The Beatles


w/ Klaus Nomi


w/ Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jean Genet


w/ Dennis Hopper


w/ John Gielgud


w/ Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim

 

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Further

Terry Southern Official Website
Terry Southern interviews Stanley Kubrick
TS interviewed about his work in film
‘TS’s Quality Lit’ @ The Valve
TS reports from the 1968 Democratic Convention
TS page @ The New York Times
Terry Southern Month @ The Paris Review
‘Terry Southern and Voltaire: The Lost Art of Blasting Smugness’
‘The Original Hipster’ @ The Austin Chronicle
‘The High Life and High Times of Terry Southern’ @ Time Magazine
Buy books by and about Terry Southern

 

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Movies written by Terry Southern


The Making of “Dr. Strangelove”


THE LOVED ONE 1965 / Making Of Featurette


Trailer: Barbarella (1968)


‘Candy’, the film (Excerpt)


Trailer: Easy Rider (1969)


‘The Magic Christian’, the film (the entirety)


Trailer: End of the Road (1970)

 

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Quotes

 

On American publishers: ‘I think most American publishers’ tastes are on the level of the comic-strip. They’ve become just ordinary businessmen. They don’t have time to read; they’re too busy hustling. Consequently they never develop any personal tastes. The way they work, they examine a manuscript for a while and then they may say “Oh yes, this is like Look Homeward Angel, and they they look up the sales record of Look Homeward Angel, and if that’s all right they’ll take it. But if the manuscript happens to be just a bit original, you can save yourself the postage…unless it’s five or six hundred pages, of course, then they’re rather apt to take it, anything; they got that idea from big cars — you know, “What’s good for General Motors … By Cracky!” They’re the first real automatons trained quite simply to spot imitations of previous imitations.’

On pornography: ‘I’m for for public screenings of outright pornographic films. . That would be the only way to improve their quality. After the novelty wore off, people wouldn’t support them unless they were really good–and then you wouldn’t call them pornographic. It’s the clandestine nature of the thing that causes those films to be so lousy and yet so expensive. It’s analogous to prostitution. In London, for example, you can get laid for thirty shillings–what’s that, about four bucks? Well, I mean you wonder how is it possible to see a strange, interesting looking chick, know you can make it with her for thirty shillings and then just walk by? Christ, you’d think a guy with money would simply lay one chick after another right straight through the day. Right? Well, not a bit of it, old chap! The reason is they’re used to it by now. And I’m sure that soon happens with anything that isn’t forced underground … dirty movies, dope, anything. You’ll notice, by the way, it takes more than a scattering of “fuck, piss, shits” these days to make a best-selling novel. That’s old hat now, and almost no one will lay out for old hat.

On Hollywood movies: ‘The studios would rather employ a screen writer with eight disasters to his credit than a William Faulkner with none. In fact, when Faulkner — who had the greatest ear for regional dialogue of his time — was finally used in Hollywood, his work was invariably rewritten by hacks, simply because producers and directors were suspicious of anyone who had not written for films before — as if there was something special about it, or about the crap they were turning out … In the majority of pictures with budgets of five hundred thou or more, studio participation is involved, and wherever there is studio money, there is the dinosaur mentality and the apelike interference which are unfailingly part of the package. If a writer is sensitive about his work being treated like Moe, Zack and Larry working over the Sistine Chapel with a crowbar, then he would do well to avoid screenwriting altogether … The wise thing, of course, is to become a filmmaker.’

 

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Book

Terry Southern The Magic Christian
Grove Press

‘One of the funniest, cruelest, and most savagely revealing books about American life ever written, The Magic Christian has been called Terry Southern’s masterpiece. Guy Grand is an eccentric billionaire — the last of the big spenders — determined to create disorder in the material world and willing to spare no expense to do it. Leading a life full of practical jokes and madcap schemes, his ultimate goal is to prove his theory that there is nothing so degrading or so distasteful that someone won’t do it for money. In Guy Grand’s world, everyone has a price, and he is all too willing to pay it. A satire of America’s obsession with bigness, toughness, money, TV, guns, and sex, The Magic Christian is a hilarious and wickedly original novel from a true comic genius.’ — Grove Press

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Excerpt

Guy Grand had upset the equilibrium of a rather posh Madison Avenue advertising agency, Jonathan Reynolds, Ltd., by secretly buying it, en passant so to speak, and putting in as president a pygmy.

At that time it was rare for a person of this skin-pigmentation or stature—much the less both—to hold down a top-power post in one of these swank agencies, and these two handicaps alone would have been difficult enough to overcome though perhaps could have been overcome in due time had the chap shown a reasonable amount of savoir-faire and general ability, or the promise of developing it. In this case however, Grand had apparently paid the man to behave in an eccentric manner—to scurry about the offices like a squirrel and to chatter raucously in his native tongue. It was more than a nuisance.

An account-executive, for example, might be entertaining an extremely important client in his own office, a little tête-à-tête of the very fist seriousness—perhaps with an emissary of one of the soapflake-kings—when the door would burst open and in would flu the president, scrambling across the room and under the desk, shrieking pure gibberish, and then out he’s go again, scuttling crabwise over the carpet, teeth and eyes blazing. “What in God’s name was that?” the client would ask, looking slowly about, his face pocked with a terrible frown.

“Why, that… that…” but the a.e. could not bring himself to tell, not after the first few times anyway. Evidently it was a matter of pride.

Later the a.e. might run into one of his friends from another agency, and the friend would greet him:

“Say, hear you’ve got a new number-one over at J.R., Tommy—what’s the chap like?”

“Well, as a matter of face, Bert…”

“You don’t mean the old boy’s got you on the mat already, Tommy? Ha-ha. That what you’re trying to say?”

“No, Bert, it’s… well, I don’t know, Bert, I just don’t know.”

It was a matter of pride, of course. As against it, salaries had been given a fairly still boost, and titles. If these dapper exec’s were to go to another agency now, it would be to a considerable loss of dollars and cents. Most of the old-timers—and the newer ones too, actually—had what it took to stick it out there at J.R….

“Anyone have any news of Bill Thorndike, by the way?” he added matter of factly, as he sat down again. Ginger Horton banged her cup irately.

“That…that damn nut!” she said, her cheeks puffing out like a great red frog’s. “No, and I couldn’t care less!”

Who?” asked Esther.

“Dr. William Thorndike,” said Agnes, “that extraordinary dentist whom Ginger went to. He and Guy were friends at school together—isn’t that right, Guy?”

“Yes, quite good friends too,” said Guy. “Poor fellow, had a nervous breakdown or something from what Ginger says. I haven’t seen him in the longest. How was he when you last saw him, Ginger?”

Grand had made this inquiry any number of times, and then had always glossed over Ginger’s account of the incident, as though he could not fully take it in.

“The last time!?!” she cried, “why I only saw him once, of course—on your recommendation—and once too often it was too! Good Lord, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that again? Why he was absolutely insane! He said to me: ‘These molars are soft, Mrs. Horton!’ or some such ridiculous thing. ‘We’d better get you onto a a soft-food regime right away!’ he said, and then without another word about it, while I was still leaning back with my mouth open, he dropped a raw egg into my mouth and rushed out of the room, waving his arms and yelling at the top of his voice! Raving mad!”

“Hmm—not like Bill Thorndike,” said Grand. “First rate medical-man, he used to be. You never went back to him then?”

I certainly did not! I went straight to the nearest police-station, that’s where I went! And reported him!”

Grand frowned a look of mild disapproval.

“I’m afraid that won’t help Bill’s standing with the Association any.”

“Well, I should hope not!” said Ginger Horton as strongly as she could.

“How Uncle Edward used to love raw eggs!” said Esther. “Do you remember, Agnes?”

“It’s hardly the same thing, Esther,” said Agnes.

“Well, he always had them with a sort of sauce,” Esther recalled. “Worcestershire sauce, I suppose it was.”

“It could have been some new form of deficiency treatment, of course, Ginger,” Agnes said… “I mean if your molars were soft…” But in the face of Ginger Horton’s mounting exasperation, she broke off and turned to Guy, “…but what’s your feeling on it, Guy?”

“Bill always was up-to-the-minute,” Guy agreed. “Always on to the latest. Very progressive in school affairs, that sort of thing—oh nothing disreputable, of course, but, I mean to say as far as being on to the newest thing in…in dentistry-techniques, well, I’m certainly confident that Bill—“

“He just plopped that raw egg right into my mouth!” said Ginger shrilly. “Why I didn’t even know what it was. And that isn’t all—the instruments, and everything else were crazy. There was some kind of wooden paddle…”

“Spatula?” prompted Guy helpfully.

“No, not a spatula! Good Heavens! A big wooden oar, about four-feet long, actually leaning up against a chair.”

“Surely he doesn’t use that?” said Agnes.

“But what on earth was it doing there is what I want to know?” demanded Ginger.

“Maybe Bill’s taken up boating,” Guy offered, but then coughed to show the lameness of it, “…wasn’t too keen at school as I remember. Tennis, that was Bill’s game—damn good he was too—on the varsity his last two years.”

“I simply cannot make you understand what an absolute madman he was,” said Ginger Horton. “There was something else on the chair, too—a pair of ice-tongs it looked like!”

“Clamp, I suppose,” murmured Grand.

“‘Better safe than sorry, eh Mrs. Horton?’ he said to me like a perfect maniac, and then he said: ‘Now I don’t want you to swallow this!’ and he dropped a raw egg in my mouth and rushed around the room, waving a lot of those weird instruments over his head, and then out the door, yelling at the top of his lungs!”

“May have been called out on emergency, you see,” said Guy, “happens all too often in that business from what I’ve seen of it.”

“What was he saying when he left, Ginger?” Agnes asked.

Saying? He wasn’t saying anything. He was simply yelling. Yaahh! Yaahh! Yaahh!’ it sounded like.”

“How extraordinary,” said Agnes.

“Not like Bill,” said Guy, shaking his head, “must have been called out on an emergency, only thing I can make of it.”

“But surely the receptionist could have explained it all, my dear,” said Agnes.

“There was no receptionist I tell you!” said Ginger Horton irately. “There was no one but him—and a lot of fantastic instruments. And the chair was odd too! I’m lucky to have gotten out of there alive!”

“Did she swallow the egg?” asked Esther.

“Esther, for Heaven’s sake!”

“What was that?” asked Grand, who seemed not to have heard.

“Esther wanted to know if Ginger had swallowed the egg,” Agnes said.

“Certainly not!” said Ginger, “I spat it right out! Not at first, of course; I was in a state of complete shock. ‘I don’t want you to swallow this! he said when he dropped it in, the maniac, so I just sat there in a state of pure shock while he raced around the room, screaming like a madman!”

“Maybe it wasn’t an egg,” suggested Esther.

“What on earth do you mean?” demanded Ginger, quite beside herself. “It certainly was an egg—a raw egg! I tasted it and saw it, and some of the yellow got on my frock!”

“And then you filed a complaint with the authorities?” asked Agnes.

“Good Heavens, Agnes, I went straight to the police. Well, he could not be found! Disappeared without a trace. Raving mad!”

“Bill Thorndike’s no fool,” said Grand loyally, “I’d stake my word on that.”

“But why did he disappear like that, Guy?” asked Agnes.

“May have moved his offices to another part of the city, you see,” Guy explained, “or out of the city altogether. I know Bill was awfully keen for the West Coast, as a matter of fact—couldn’t get enough of California! Went out there every chance he could.”

“No,” said Ginger Horton with considerable authority, “he is not anywhere in this country. There is absolutely no trace of him.”

“Don’t tell me Bill’s chucked the whole thing,” said Grand reflectively, “given it all up and gone off to Bermuda or somewhere.” He gave a soft tolerant chuckle. “Wouldn’t surprise me too much though at that. I know Bill was fond of fishing too, come to think of it. Yes, fishing and tennis—that was Bill Thorndike all right. As a matter of fact,” getting out of his big chair again, “I’ll have to be pushing along myself, I’m afraid.”

“Guy, I simply will not hear of it,” cried cross Agnes, snatching her glasses off her nose and fixing the man with a terrible frown. “Surely you shall stay for dinner!”

“Guy, Guy, Guy,” keened Esther, wagging her dear gray head, “always on the go.”

“Yes, only wish I could stay,” agreed Guy sadly. “Best push on though. Back to harness, back to grind.”

“But you just cannot go off like that, Guy,” said Agnes, truly impatient with the boy now, “surely you won’t!”

Can and must, my dears,” he explained, kissing them both. “Flux, motion, growth, change—these are your great life-principles. Best to keep pace while we can.”

He bent forward and took fat Ginger’s hand in his own. “Yes, I’ll be moving on, Ginger,” he said with a warm smile for her, expansive now, perhaps in anticipation, “pushing down to Canaveral and out Los Alamos way!”

“Good Heavens,” said Agnes, “in this dreadful heat? How silly!”

“Always on the go,” purred Esther.

“It’s wise to keep abreast,” said Guy seriously, “I’ll just nip down to Canaveral and see what’s shaking on the space-scene, so to speak.”

Guy,” said Ginger, squeezing his hand and sparkling up again on one monstrous surge of personality, “it has been fun!”

Good-byes were her forte.

Guy gave a courtly nod, before turning to go, in deference it seemed to her great beauty.

“As ever, my dear,” he whispered, and with a huskiness that made all the ladies tingle, “it has been…inspiring.

(read more)
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*

p.s. Hey. I’ll give you a layout of my current situation, if you’re interested. As you no doubt already know, as of this morning France is locked down and quarantined for the next 15 days at least. To leave my apartment even just to buy cigarettes or food, I have to fill out an official form on a government website stating the name and address of where I’m going, print out the form, and carry it with me while I’m out running my errand. Police are stationed around Paris and patrolling, and they can stop anyone for any reason and ask to see your form. If they determine that you’re not doing precisely what is stated on the form, you get a steep fine and must return home immediately. Iow, it’s nuts here. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. We are forcibly cocooned here now, as I just described. Paris is as quiet as Antarctica. It’s something else. You like Vincent-the-Icon? I forget which … hold on … Oh, that makes sense. ** Bill, Hi. Well, to try to be fair to the nasty commenters, I did gather most of those profiles before things got virus crazy. That said, having just returned from an early escort search for next month, nastiness continues to prevail. But of course the commenters can be nice too, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the nice comments tend to be very banal and samey so I rarely include them. We do have solid supermarkets here when they’re big (for Paris), you are right. The grant committee thing got cancelled, of course. Or I mean (hopefully) postponed. Literally everything is a giant question mark over here right now. ** Kyler, Great news, man! Enjoy the rush, writing-wise and otherwise. With “this stuff”? You mean the virus stuff? I’m totally healthy as far as I can tell, just dealing with the lockdown like everybody else. I’m me. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. I sure hope and trust you can sort out the Leeds infusion. The UK response to the virus seems so weird and kind of counterproductive from over here. I hope BJ isn’t seriously fucking everyone up. We can be isolation buddies. I am post-freedom until further notice. So strange. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Oh, boy, but yes, I’m not surprised about your delay. So sorry to hear that. Same kind of thing going on here, of course, to an even more extreme degree. Cool about the new writing gigs. I was going to be seeing Yves Tumor live next week, but, uh, … Well, very strangely, escorts are still making new profiles in their usual large quantities, even in locked-down spots like here, Italy, and Spain, and, with a handful of exceptions, they’re offering the same services with no mention of the plague. Only a few that I’ve seen have switched to offering discrete non-sexual company instead. ** Mark Gluth, Hi, Mark. Yeah, we are suddenly massively restricted here, as I said. Giant pain in the ass, but it seems wise and logical. Everyone I know here is still fit and healthy as far as they and I can tell. I don’t get the UK response either. People/media over here think Johnson’s hands-off approach is cruising for a gigantic national bruising, but … we will see. Stay very safe. ** Okay. People don’t really read or talk much about Terry Southern these days, but he was a very interesting character and writer back in the countercultural days, so why not spend a bit of today getting to know him? Cool. See you tomorrow.

8 Comments

  1. Adore Terry Southern. A few months back soe people were in touch with me about Terry Southern project they wanted to interview me for. Very vague as to what it was. Haven’t heard from them since. Joe McGrath’s film of “The Magic Christian” isn’t bad but “The Loved One” is really great. Southern collaborated on the script with Christopher Isherwood and you know who wrote what the minute a line is spoken.

    Incredible that France is now a Police State thanks to the virus. Here everybody’s ocked up tight. Bill’s going out today to get eggs and soup but we’re pretty well-stocked otherwise.

    Check youre-mail, I forwarded a letter I got from Wheeler Dixon that includes a video he just shot. It’s very Zen.

    Here are Viv and her daughter Alexandra talking about “Lion’s Love”

  2. I’ve never read the book, but have been curious to see the film for many years now, ever since Grant Morrison namedropped it in his THE INVISIBLES comic book years ago.

    The first of my only 2 shifts this week is today (normally I work 5 days a week, this week I’m only working today and tomorrow). I’m very curious to see what work will be like today, though. I doubt we’ll be busy, but I’m sure the supermarket next door to us (along with the nearby Walmart) will be packed…

  3. Double Wow! Wow is for Terry Southern and WOW for your situation in Paris at the moment. I thought it was bad here in Los Angeles, but we’re sissies! What if you don’t have a printer! I try to be zen-like as much as possible. The unknown is the unknown which doesn’t mean it will be a bad unknown, but still…? The Magic Christian is a fun read. I read it years ago, and Southern will always be a person of great interest. His biography by his son is quite good. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to write a bio on one’s dad. Stay healthy Dennis. For sure we live in horror times, but also I find it a blessing that we are experiencing all of this as well. An excellent time to be an artist/writer.

  4. Funny, I’ve seen Barbarella at least twice, and it never hit me that Terry Southern wrote the screenplay! That’s a pretty cute photo of him before the Quotes.

    Sorry to hear about your lockdown, Dennis. Umm, what if people don’t own a printer? Or have internet? Our lockdown guidelines are pretty similar, except you don’t have to have a printed form, and (so far) I don’t see any police activity asking people where they’re going. I see a few people out jogging, and they’re not staying 6 feet apart as per the guidelines.

    Dark film post is almost ready. I need to harvest some eye-catching stills.

    Bill

  5. Hey dude! Man, shit is getting real eh? I watched Macron’s speech yesterday and was suddenly reminded what it’s like having a head of state who actually takes his role seriously. I’m not a massive fan of the dude but when you watch only Boris and Donald for a while your notion of leadership and professionalism erodes so far you’re suddenly surprised when someone utters a whole sentence without trailing off into the mist. Well, anyway – seems our own blabbering blonde buffoon is starting to see the light, although he’s still far off the general EU approach. Then again, he would be wouldn’t he. It’s all pretty unreal though, this whole thing. I am working from home and already starting to get cabin fever. But I’m ok, just really worried about people in precarious jobs with no safety nets, self-employed, 0-hour contracts… shit man. That’s a lot of economic casualties. Do you think the silver lining will be that your compatriots will realize universal healthcare is not just some commie fantasy? One can dream!

  6. I’ve added Terry Southern’s novel to the wish list for my burgeoning self-isolation library. Seriously, The Magic Christian does look essential and I will try my best to finagle a home delivery.

    This is me back in Leeds as of today. Our household is in self-imposed lockdown as my folks are both over 70 and my MS means that I have an existing condition. But we do have access to good wine and food, plus I will be reading and writing too. We can do this!

  7. Hey Dennis,
    Really nice post on Terry Southern. I’ve read a bunch of his short stories and seen the films, but never took the full plunge on any of his novels. This the place to start?

    That’s amazing how swiftly the shutdown has happened in France and the new form protocol. It’s a bit staggering how this ramps up from day-to-day.

    I’ve been battling really bad allergies — which comes with constant tinge of Covid paranoia, though that’s not what they are. Fortunate to have freelance work that I can do from home, so it hasn’t disrupted too much. The supermarkets here have been picked bare, but overall it seems like maybe N.C. is a bit ahead of the curve than other states with its precautions. Hopefully that makes a difference.

    Recently saw ‘India Song’ – been looking for it w/ English subs forever – and was knocked out by its brilliance. Also watched interesting doc on Rahsaan Roland Kirk that has some stunning live footage. You seen anything interesting lately?

    Been reading Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe which is excellent so far. Did you do a post on it? Seem to vaguely recall…

  8. I’ve realized that I need to get this surgery in the next few weeks or I may go blind. I am not exaggerating. From what I’ve read today, the “elective” surgeries that have been indefinitely postponed include things as vital as cancer treatment. But there’s a possibility that I could get it done at a clinic near my parents’ house. I need to see if my health insurance will cover out of state work, consult my doctor and then make arrangements. I’m fucking terrified that I will lose my vision unless I am able to get surgery within this narrow window – even if my vision can be restored later, it will deteriorate to the point where I can’t live alone. And if New York is on lockdown a la your situation in Paris, can I get a medical exemption to leave the city? Fucking hell.

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