A Thousand Interlinked Details: Maybe the People Would Be the Times by Luc Sante

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It’s morning here. I know it from the pale sunrise, and the cool air, and that young couple once again hotboxing what must be extraordinary weed, given the Nickelback rattling their Mazda. I also know it’s morning from my pre-caffeine headache, from my neural somersaults, and from the eye-watering clang of a thunderous garbage truck in militant salute. But I mostly know it’s morning because I’m now seated by a tree just outside my apartment in Los Angeles, bleary-eyed, holding a book I was up all night reading.

The book is Luc Sante’s Maybe the People Would Be the Times, a tour-de-force essay collection just nominated for the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay award. Made up of fifty-one brief essays written over nearly three decades, Sante’s latest builds on his previous collection, Kill All Your Darlings (2007), by capturing scenes and sentiments from 1970s and 1980s New York City: record shops, concerts, subway snoozes, dance clubs, block parties, tabloids, most-wanted lists, drug trips, underground economies, drink tickets, apartment dramas, visual cultures, unsent letters. Through his essays, Sante meditates, actively or otherwise, on what it’s been like for him to see and feel the world change—to come of age through music, photography, literature, and film, and to be growing older and wiser still.

Formally, the book’s actually five smaller ones linked together: a “sequence of sequences,” as the jacket-copy describes it. It’s all unified, though. Despite the book’s durational character (the earliest piece dates to 1993, the latest to 2019) as well as its wide range of subjects—crime scene photos, silent-movie stills, other people’s snapshots, mugshot ontologies, child drawings, film dailies, horrific postcards, fotonovelas, décollage, local rumors, and more—Sante’s collection feels seamless, tightly and expertly woven.

As a reader, one might reasonably expect, with these kinds of bricolage-like longitudinal projects, to sense changes in style—sentence-level gestures and fashions emerging and fading over the years. But Maybe the People Would Be the Times is notably steady. The book feels like a life project, a sustained study in earnestness and grime, intimacy and mundanity, meaning and memory, youth and death. The essays read like poems in their compression and velocity, enshrining what Joan Didion once called those “bits of the mind’s string too short to use”: scraps, fragments, clippings, noise. Every sentence feels like an unveiling.

As I sit outside my apartment with Sante’s book, I begin to notice what feel like a thousand interlinked details all around me: an abandoned cloth mask on a sidewalk; a bespectacled man in a nearby church parking lot blasting Cuco’s “Keeping Tabs” from his mud-caked ‘90s Astro; artist Muckrock’s #hollyweird mural of Marilyn Monroe as a cyclops in interstellar-glam; a mangled electric scooter pointing the way to Sony Pictures; an abandoned box-spring mattress left sawed in half in a parking space, near some blooming roses and a single gray sock. Somehow, thousands of miles and sunrises from the NYC specificities Sante writes about, I feel closer to everything, as if actively part of place and time.

As sounds drift in and out of earshot—a jogger’s Run the Jewels, a Camaro’s Taylor Swift—I try listening a little harder, inspired by Sante’s essays. His music writing really is some of the best of the moment; whether writing about doo-wop or hip-hop, he has an uncommon knack for capturing how music acts on bodies, how its vibrations instantiate new worlds. Consider, for instance, this passage on music, dance, and intimacy:

We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn’t stop except when you collapsed.

Consider, too, his thoughts on listening to music at fifteen: “The music was immense, an entire world immeasurably different from the sad one you were born into. If you could figure out how to get in, the music would suffuse you. You wouldn’t even need an instrument: you would become one with the music and it would pour from you like light through gauze.” Or, check out “12 Sides,” a set of object studies of twelve records in Sante’s personal collection—engagements with how their distinguishing defects, crinkles, and skips shape musical memory and defy easy replacement:

“Soul Power Pt. 1,” by James Brown (King 45-6368). Ex collection “Suggs.” Found 1976, New York City. Estimated plays 200-250. Label rubbed nearly raw, with white bands at outer edge and edge of inner declivity; title nearly illegible… James’s shouts are nearly lost in a forest of brambles, and seventeen seconds before the end groove the finale is hijacked by a fatal skip.

With so much to hear in every moment, for Sante, the page is a score, the world a song.

It’s afternoon now. I know this from the scheduled procession of overloaded Amazon delivery trucks, and the post-lunch lull in foot traffic, and the crows eyeing each other across the trees. I know it because the world feels still: peak sunlight has rendered the greens of the neighborhood grasses, ferns, and decorative plants intense and crystalline. There’s a faint smell of diesel fuel in the air, and an old Boston terrier behind a window screen has poked its nose through the blinds to investigate. A small child is frolicking alongside woozy young parents and a regal Frenchie puppy. Angry drivers are getting honk-brazen.

I also know that it’s not just any afternoon, but the afternoon of January 6, 2021. I know it because my phone, glassy and frictionless, is alighting with video footage of sadboy white terrorists making a spectacle of bottomless anxieties, throwing a white tantrum fueled by spineless cronies and ignited by a seasoned grifter. I’m here, sitting treeside among worker ants, as the US Capitol comes under siege.

Amid my shock, one of the last essays I read, “The Spirit Hand,” volunteers itself, perhaps too eagerly, as somehow suitable to the moment, its treatment of spirit photography surprisingly applicable to Trumpism specifically and whiteness generally: “It is not hard to imagine being unbalanced by loss and then thrown into a darkened room where the last tenuous grasp of reality finally gives way, or to imagine larkishly producing a hoax and then finding that a great number of people have become psychologically dependent on its indefinite perpetuation.” 

Another essay, “The Show Window”—an engrossing word-and-image piece on the history of NYC tabloids—seems to speak to the moment, too:

With allowances made for the higher-caliber events, which naturally call for larger type sizes, the ultimate measure of a news story [begins] residing in its compression value, its allowing itself to be expressed in the fewest characters, an inexorable process by which history achieves its summit in three words, then three syllables, then two, finally attaining the loftiest status possible: red type.

And still another essay, “Masked and Anonymous,” seems to leap directly off the page, transforming itself from printed text to live commentary. “Power wants a face that will make the shareholders feel as comfortable as in their own country club, but it doesn’t want the public to have a face on which to pin their grandmother’s eviction… Power explicitly draws attention to its implacable anonymity, furthermore asserting its impunity.”

I think about these essays silently, seated in dappled light, now watching a small child chase a lizard while a cyclist pedals by, maskless.

As Earth turns, I try to resist doomscrolling by turning back to Sante’s book, the sun dipping in the sky while police sirens wail downtown. And I begin to feel reflective, relational. I find myself flipping to Sante’s biographical essays—specifically, to a long section devoted entirely to profiles of authors, filmmakers, and experimental artists—people who, in some way, have informed Sante’s own vision. Among them: editor Barbara Epstein, writer-musician Patti Smith, novelist Richard Stark, experimental graphic novelist Lynd Ward, writer and film enthusiast Manny Farber, artist and cyber-information theorist Sophie Calle, photographer David Wojnarowicz. Written with varying degrees of love and moral judgment, Sante’s profiles stand out as studies in intrigue and description. His critique of novelist Michel Houellebecq’s imaginative take on H.P. Lovecraft’s fustian, racism, and general misanthropy in “The Heroic Nerd” is visceral: as Houellebecq reads Lovecraft, “Living creatures are disgusting, and their omnipotent undead adversaries are also disgusting: the universe is one gigantic swirling vortex of vomit. The only remedy, transit and puny though it may be, is to give voice to your principled stance in the face of it all.” His depiction of author George Simeon feels hard-boiled and noirish: “Whatever roisterous creature he had been in his younger days, by then, he had become a walking statue, rarely photographed without his fedora, trench coat, and pipe, his face an unmoving collection of slits arranged on an oval.” Framed by fable-like titles—”The Famous,” “The Stalking Ghost,” “The Source”—Sante’s profiles are their own form, are parables, are sets of coded lessons for living and making and dying. What wisdom might they offer us now?

It’s evening. I know this because of the fiery twilight bouncing off two golden, semi-feral cats on the street corner—cats who spend their days in little curbside apartments, eyeing up humans, nonplussed. I know it because of texts that have started arriving from loved ones getting off work: little intimacies and notes of concern rebounded off distant satellites, right into my pocket. I know it by the tall palm trees standing sentinel near the curb, their fronds waving lazily like loose hair. I know it by the new whiff of pot smoke in the air, and by how calm the block seems, how placid.

Sitting here, restless, I keep turning over passages from Maybe the People Would Be the Times, many proclaiming new and immediate relevance in these hours of insurrection. One of them, on youth, aging: “it held such promise,” your generation; “it believed so wildly and intensely in its own belief. It thought it was different from all other generations. It was a generation that thought it was a country.” Another, on the times of places: “There are other cities within this city, and all of them are following different temporal routes. We see ours as a palimpsest of succeeding nows, like wheat pasted posters blithely and unendingly covering up yesterday’s posters on boarded-up storefronts, while they measure theirs in work weeks or lunar months or fiscal years or a relentless thud of falling decades.” And still another, one that seemed to confide in me directly: “I had a million questions I couldn’t even frame as questions, which resolved into a single glowing orb of curiosity. My only recourse, as ever, was printed matter.”

How to translate these resonances, these rhymes with and impressions of a distant city, into something like a personal essay or a book review? How to capture the facts of today, as I knew them, while shuttling between experience and memory, city and city, writer and reader? How, today, to write the textures of places and people that would be, have become, the times?

Book still in hand, I linger with these questions, grateful for Sante’s example. And as the streetlights flicker on, I stand, still sleepless.

Jonathan Leal is a scholar-musician and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Southern California. He is the co-creator (with Charlie Vela) of Futuro Conjunto, a transmedia, Chicanx speculative fiction album named one of the best Latinx releases of 2020 by Pitchfork, Texas Highways, and Raymus Media Magazines. More from this author →