In this week’s issue, we have a big heaping of literary criticism with a side of memoir. Leftovers are likely, but they probably wouldn’t mix very well in a sandwich. While you clear the plates, let me know what you’ve been listening to. Find me on Twitter or reach me over email: email@example.com.
Jamie Loftus uses podcasting a lot like a scalpel: as a means to dissect, but also to reduce to ribbons. My Year in Mensa, her previous solo audio effort from January, saw the writer-comedian recount her experience gaining entry into the famed “high IQ society” and wickedly surveying the community’s internal dynamics. It’s a vivid piece of anthropology, jam-packed with piercing observations and biting humor. Of course a community built around self-identified intellectual supremacy is a toxic cesspool. My Year in Mensa makes Loftus a good example as the comedian-as-critic, taking a subject that’s generally thought to be positive and banal, flipping it over, and revealing a dark, dark underbelly.
With Lolita Podcast, the frame is reversed. The new series sees Loftus taking something many have generally thought by some to be so controversial as to be inherently negative, turning it inside out, and unearthing the rich textures within. The subject in question is, of course, the titular 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov that depicts a middle-age pedophile (who is also a famously unreliable narrator) accounting his obsession and sexual relationship with his young step-daughter. The novel is considered to be a literary masterpiece, though with decades between publication and the present, it’s become one of those things where the phenomenon has come to largely overshadow the actual book.
I’ll admit: I’m one of those people who doesn’t have much of a personal history with the novel, having never read it and whose primary understanding of it partly comes from the 1997 film adaption, which Loftus hits hard against for a hollow understanding of the text, and partly from the way it’s been broadly talked about. In other words, the Lolita of my imagination is largely the Lolita of cultural osmosis: a shadowy secondary representation of the original article, all critiques and reductions.
Which is why Lolita Podcast has made for rich listening, at least for me. I can’t speak to how Nabokov scholars would appraise Loftus’s reading of the text, its legacy, its many debates, and her interpretation of Nabokov’s biography, but as a Nabokovian newbie, it feels like such a distinct pleasure to get fast-tracked into the ideas, fault lines, and quandaries that one is supposed to have about this work.
It helps that Lolita Podcast is so compellingly made. Much of what made My Year in Mensa so viscerally entertaining is present in this production: It’s engrossing on a minute-to-minute basis, it’s densely layered with insight and informative asides, and Loftus’s genuine appreciation for the novel often packs an emotional wallop. It’s also so damn funny. Any gambit to evoke Nicolas Cage as a contextualizing biographical device — that works — is one to be commended.
Goodbye to All This
The most striking thing about Goodbye to All This, Sophie Townsend’s memoiristic accounting of losing her husband to an illness, is the way it effectively communicates the disorientating feeling one is struck with after an unimaginable personal tragedy. Time distorts, the brain scrambles, the world becomes telescopic. You fixate on some details, perhaps more so than ever before, or you simply disengage on others, like keeping up social appearances when interacting with a cashier. It feels like you’re frozen in space and time, while both the world and the tragedy continues to spin away.
Goodbye to All That could very well be a hard thing to recommend even in the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, but I’m recommending it all the same. Maybe it will meet you in the exact right place in your life. Maybe not. But it’s still going to be here all the same time, if you ever get there.
The product of a collaboration between Sophie Townsend, the BBC, and Falling Tree Productions, Goodbye to All That is gorgeously assembled. Much of this is powered by Townsend’s elegant scripting. She spends quite a bit of time pairing the quotidian and the unthinkable in her accounting, accentuating the strangeness of balancing the experience of a loved one’s terminal illness with the basic routines of everyday life, like shepherding the kids to school or making a cup of coffee. There’s power in this banality, evoking how the most painful thing about losing someone is having to navigate the person-shaped hole in the rest of one’s day-to-day life.
At this writing, the podcast has just published the eighth installment of what will be a 12-part series. In this stretch, Townsend depicts having just lost her husband and is beginning to feel out the way forward. It might take a while, but we’re in no hurry.
Three thematically related picks if you remain in the mood for close readings of texts and artists:
• Consider checking out Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a long-running podcast dedicated to reading the books as, well, sacred texts. I find the show fascinating for several reasons, but mostly for the way it can be experienced as a rigorous exercise in secular religiosity.
• Picked this one up recently: Just King Things, which endeavors to plow through Stephen King’s entire body of work in chronological order. The show is only five episodes in — tackling Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, and Night Shift — and it adheres to a monthly publishing cadence, but each installment is pretty long, stretching out to as long as two hours, and it gets real wonky.
• You know what? I’d kill for more podcasts built around oeuvres. On that note, I’ve also been enjoying All About Almodovar, Inkoo Kang and Daniel Schroeder’s deep plumb through the filmography of the great Pedro Almodovar.
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.