On Imaginary Cities

CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.

Spain and Cervantes

On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.

The Little Prince

IN the interplanetary debris field between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid 46610 Bésixdouze. Discovered in 1993, its name was suggested by Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar in honour of The Little Prince. The title character of that singular cosmic fairytale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fell to Earth from a fictional asteroid designated B612, so this coding was rendered into phonetic French and hexadecimal notation for its real-life namesake. The author himself had drawn those specific figures from the registration of a plane he flew as an airmail pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s.

The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden

FOR years he was a ghost. Then, suddenly, a corpse. On the night of May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that US forces had located and killed Osama Bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. More of the details emerged in later statements from the White House, Pentagon and CIA, some of them contradictory.

Zero K by Don DeLillo

AT this late stage of his life and career, Don DeLillo has been called a prophet so often, for so long, that he is now being sold as such. The publicity materials for his latest novel draw heavily on quotes and blurbs from peers and critics awed by Delillo’s prescience – his spooky receptivity to currents and portents in the culture, his novelistic gift for reading runes in news and sports and weather reports, then telling us how we’re going to die.

Magic As A Practical Science: Susannah Clarke

In the early 1990s, Susannah Clarke started making notes for a story. She was teaching English to Fiat automobile executives in Turin, and then to equally “sweet and overworked” Basque business types in Bilbao. But she was also thinking idly about the English winter, and the picture on a jigsaw puzzle she used to have, which showed two old gentlemen in 19th century wigs, reading books in a huge library.

Heads Above Water: David Vann’s Aquarium

SUKKWAN Island, Caribou Island, Dirt and Goat Mountain. For a while it seemed that David Vann was not only building a body of work – and quickly, at a rate of almost one book a year – but also drawing some kind of map.

Everything’s Funny: Denis Johnson

AN army brat born in Munich and raised on US bases in the Philippines, Japan, and the outskirts of Washington D.C., Denis Johnson had seen the world before he published a word. He started pretty early though, with his first poetry collection at the age of 19, and has since written stage plays, crime thrillers, foreign correspondence, dirty-realist short stories and post-apocalyptic fictions, a monumental fugue of a Vietnam War novel, Tree Of Smoke, and a luminous Old West novella, Train Dreams.

The 65-Year-Old Teenager: Haruki Murakami

HARUKI Murakami has nothing to say. The author admits this himself, and often claims to be a bit baffled by his ongoing compulsion to write, given that he has no particular points to make, nor even any stories to tell. He gets up at four every morning, sits down to his desk, and starts composing… Read more »