Follow Harriet on Twitter
The New York Times on Kenny Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters
Mr. Goldsmith, who refers to his writing as “mimetic and uncreative,” recently became the first poet laureate appointed by the Museum of Modern Art. There’s a good deal of Andy Warhol in his deadpan attack. His stuff has often been more rewarding to think about than to read.
His potent new book, “Seven American Deaths and Disasters,” takes its title from a series of Warhol paintings. It’s made up entirely of other people’s words, and in many senses it’s like everything he’s done. Yet it’s like nothing he’s done. It knocks the air from your lungs.
To make “Seven American Deaths and Disasters,” Mr. Goldsmith has combed through archival radio and television broadcasts of painful events over the past six decades: there are chapters about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and John Lennon; the explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger; the shootings at Columbine High School; the attacks at the World Trade Center; and the death of Michael Jackson — and he has transcribed the reports as they unfurled on the air, live and unmediated.
To Mr. Goldsmith’s detractors this may seem like a cheap stunt, a snort of disaster porn. Or it may seem like proof that, in the author’s case, even a blind and snoutless pig will occasionally find a truffle. At times it made me uneasy.
But Mr. Goldsmith has also delivered a kind of found treasure of the American vernacular. His book is about the sounds our culture makes when the reassuring smooth jazz of much of our broadcast media breaks down, when disc jockeys and news anchors are forced to find words for events that are nearly impossible to describe. This book is about language under duress.
The hardest chapters to read in “Seven American Deaths and Disasters” are those about Columbine and the World Trade Center attacks, because both were still happening during the reports transcribed here. There is a disquieting sense of lives being lost in real time.
This book will have you dilating on race in America. After Robert Kennedy’s death, there were incorrect reports that the assassin was a black man. Michael Jackson’s career is mocked by D.J.’s even before confirmation of his death has arrived: “Jeff. Jeff. There are still people who want to sound like Elvis! There’s nobody who wants to sound like Michael Jackson.”
Mr. Goldsmith’s book is a kind of atrocity exhibition, also a little black book of heartbreak. Sometimes his editing skills fail him. Several of these sections go on too long and become repetitive. At other times he shears these reports of too much of the day’s context, of things like the pop songs that eerily framed the news of President Kennedy’s shooting. He repeatedly misspells the name of Gov. John B. Connally Jr. of Texas.
But mostly he is an adept literary magpie. He concludes his section on Sept. 11 with morning news from Chinatown, news that somehow captures this book’s horrific yet eerily quotidian tone.