Hopping like a jackrabbit between genres and media, including forays into the swamps of pop culture, Nelson is strongest when at her most rageful, writing with controlled fury at the anti-­intellectualism and crassness of the present. She has no time for fake populism, she’s an unabashed cultural elitist: withering about reality TV, Lars von Trier and the middlebrow brutality dispenser Neil LaBute (whose plays she calls “sophomoric” and “weak-minded”). She employs herself as a registering instrument, constantly taking her aesthetic temperature: “I felt angry. Then I felt disgusted. Finally, I felt bored.” These reports have a phenomenological brio, laced with physiological detail. She recalls “a kind of vibrating memory of the unnerving psychic state” induced by the video art of Ryan Trecartin. About a Yoko Ono piece, she writes: “I long to see Ono’s clothes fall, to see her breasts bared. Yet I also feel a mounting sense of alarm, empathy and injustice in watching her body be made vulnerable.” She likes art that makes her morally uncomfortable, and from the laudatory way she quotes Kafka — “What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune” — I assume she wishes to induce the same state in her readers. Often she does, moving at breakneck speed from real-life political violence to the images of such violence (including those on human rights Web sites), to real violence in performance art (Chris Burden asking a friend to shoot him; Marina Abramovic inviting viewers to injure her), to the violent impulses of artists like Bacon.

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