[caption id="attachment_77156" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Author Elliott Holt reads from a first edition at Brazenhead Books.[/caption] In New York City during late May of 2015, the Rangers professional hockey squad fell just short of the finals, while the Yankees and Mets approached the halfway marker of their seasons clinging to competitive success on the baseball diamond. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s stage adaptation of the Jack Black flick School of Rock appeared primed to draw flocks of the musical-hungry, and word-of-mouth for summer blockbuster Mad Max spread with zest. Mayor Bill de Blasio may have given up on his quest to ban horse rides from Central Park although, then again, maybe he had not. Gun violence, The New York Times acknowledged, had risen without nearing grim levels of an era gone by. Construction proceeded apace on that Department of Corrections-looking astral tower with apartments for the very rich off the southeastern edge of Central Park. Many of us readied for summer escapades. The number of beachgoers at Jacob Riis Park rose again. One World Trade Center recently had opened. New books debuted each and every Tuesday. There were apps for practically everything. Meanwhile, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, something singular was about to blink out of existence. Although, let it be said, something singular always is about to blink out of existence if you put any stock in venerable city lore: it’s what makes New York New York. Yet Brazenhead Books, some of us want to believe, is the kind of destination New Yorker writer of yore Joseph Mitchell would have commemorated, which is to say, one rooted in the past, a pocket of anomalous culture. The stroke of genius, Michael Seidenberg, host and proprietor of Brazenhead, will tell you in choosing several years ago to run a speakeasy from his one-time residence, rests in how everyone comes to him. All the book people, anyway. And some aren’t even book people. They just love the vibe. “I guess for me the social aspect is the main draw -- Michael is a gem, the sort of old-school all-around literary guy I haven't encountered since my early days in NYC in the '90s, when it already felt like that great old era was ending. It feels like my ideal party. Like many -- most, I'd guess -- I immediately felt at home,” says novelist Porochista Khakpour. She only recently visited for the first time. Rachel Rosenfelt, creative director for Verso Books and founder and publisher of The New Inquiry, has visited countless times. She offers a quotation from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to describe Brazenhead’s draw: For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to those Bohemias, halfway between the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented may be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world. It’s a place that can be mistaken for no other, Seidenberg’s bookstore. Even if that’s really the wrong word. Book-temple kind of gets it while sounding a notch too reverent and as if the environs offered way more space than they do. “That small and sacralized space” is how novelist Scott Cheshire refers to the apartment. “My wife calls it the place where time disappears.” Book-hovel conveys the winding and wending of the corridors through which visitors must pass, along with the no-fuss atmosphere, while failing to get across the distinct sense of wonder. Writer and New York City native Tara Isabella Burton notes “the anarchic spirit” of the place, “which is like every ‘let’s make a pillow fort’ sense of childish wonder meets ‘Beauty and the Beast’ library sense of awe.” Drinks are perpetually at hand. Between each visit, the books somehow rearrange themselves on the shelves. A title called The Dreams (Naguib Mahfouz) faces outward alongside Arabesques (Anton Shammas). A Newsweek featuring Patty Hearst in black-and-white resides alongside a back-cover emblazoned with Mentors, Muses & Monsters. As when reading a series of diversely authored poems, the mental reflex is to draw evocative links between each one. The titles seem to whisper in cahoots. At Brazenhead, there is no guest list. Maybe an invite or two. The rest of the picture fills in by chance. “It’s a secret club that welcomes all,” says musician Adam Kautz. Every Thursday, every Saturday, apparently since the dawn of time. At least the 19th century? “This place has something of Old Russia about it,” one visitor observed several months ago. “Unlike most literary parties -- which result in a few business cards exchanged, awkward conversations with unimpressive people with impressive bylines, my first night at Brazenhead produced an actual and ongoing relationship to a place and the people in it,” reflects critic Michael Thomsen. “You really have to fight to maintain any real sense of reliable intellectual fellowship, so to have it provided for you in a super-fucking-cute apartment in Manhattan, whiskey and all, is such a rare gift,” offers fiction writer and recent New York City-arrival Keenan Walsh. “Brazenhead is a living room in a city where nobody has space for a living room. It’s a community—where the books are both incidental and yet vital,” says Burton. Who makes up the crowd? Students introduced to the book-haven by their adjunct professors; filmmakers, musicians, actors, and museum workers of most every stripe; psychologists; history buffs; childhood friends of Seidenberg’s; friends of those who have visited before; travelers from Ireland, from Italy, from Spain, from Russia, from Israel, from Lebanon, many of whom read about Brazenhead in a national paper and have arrived from distant lands; magazine editors, book editors, agents, and their assistants who, for the night at least, cease being assistants; book store employees, that endangered breed; and writers, many writers. The categories of visitor, by the way, are not mutually exclusive. During an early visit, I found myself in conversation with a smoky-voiced fellow over by the silver-lidded ice bowl. He told me about a 10-hour movie by a French New Wave director, a copy of which he owns. Later that night, young poet, Seidenberg’s right hand, and founder of Brazenhead’s well-attended weekly poetry readings Simona Blat pointed at one of the surrounding bookshelves. The Factory of Facts Luc Sante. The guy had just walked out the door. “That’s him,” she said. Unassuming is the word, incognito the vibe, at Brazenhead. “A book shop,” writes Anatole Broyard in his treasured memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, “should have an almost ecclesiastical atmosphere. There should be an odor, or redolence of snuffed candles, dryness, desuetude -- even contrition.” Minus most of the contrition, that description fits the bill. Tobacco smoke spices the air and friendly quantities of marijuana were legalized at Brazenhead at least a few years before the city of New York saw fit to follow suit. The outside world feels somehow suspended under Michael Seidenberg’s roof. Although, it’s true, legality isn’t exactly his raison d’etre, if, in fact, it’s anyone’s. Bob Dylan, The Stones, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen are familiars to the stereo system, which is known to have trouble with certain discs. Left to sort itself out, the stereo seems to invent a new form of techno with skipping fragments of “Visions of Johanna,” “Ruby Tuesday,” or whatever else is playing at the moment. Also frequently heard are the tunes of Sixto Rodriguez, a.k.a. Sugarman. These discs, newer to the collection, flow without a catch. Then there’s radio. “I think it’s best when CBS 101.1 is on,” says Kautz. Seidenberg has held the apartment on 84th Street for 37 years, mostly as his place of residence. In a past life, puppeteering was his primary pursuit. Williamsburg-born, he opened his first bookstore location, which doubled as a base of puppetry operations, in today’s Cobble Hill. This was back when a storefront there went for a song and a dance, both of which Seidenberg could provide with puppets (and the moving company he used to run). Brooklyn now has achieved the quality of myth in his mind; cross the river east and he might dissolve under a sorceress’s spell. Brooklyn was what he aspired so mightily for so long to get out of -- why ever go back? That, anyway, is his line. He means it too. For several years, Brazenhead Books was a basement-level shop on the Upper East Side’s 84th Street. It never exactly did booming business. Regulars included the likes of pioneer Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson (back in Duluth, Minn., Bobby Zimmerman pirated records from his collection) along with visits from illustrator Jeff Wong, journalist Nik Cohn, film critic Richard Brody, poet Aram Saroyan, and novelist Donald Antrim. Then the '90s ended. Maintaining the store as rent costs frothed over became fiscally daunting. It was a shame, really, since Seidenberg lived on the same block, a second floor apartment a few buildings away. Tough to beat that commute. He transported his collection to the apartment and he and his wife, Nickita (“Nikki”), relocated within the neighborhood. For a few years, limbo. On occasion he appeared in a pop-up stall along Central Park’s cobbled eastern border. Maybe you spoke with him there? Then, inspiration: a close Seidenberg compatriot and art-restorer named George Bisacca along with former Brazenhead assistant Jonathan Lethem (of the Cobble Hill days) helped bring the latest and most unlikely incarnation into existence. It would be a speakeasy from the second-floor apartment, or most of the apartment. A belly-high shelf doubled as a countertop for the store and tripled as a bar immediately beyond the entry vestibule. Seidenberg would locate himself there and, if the day was slow, read the latest fiction to curry his interest. "He does not have an incurious bone in his body,” says Cheshire. In addition to recent publications by the younger set, including Cheshire, Khakpour, David Burr Gerrard, and Elliott Holt, well-represented at Brazenhead are house favorites Jerome Charyn, Thomas Berger, Muriel Spark, and Philip Roth. “You don’t need 18 miles of books with a man like Michael curating,” says Tyler Malone, editor-and-chief of lit mag The Scofield. Bob Dylan peers from multiple posters on the walls. A Roger Sterling-looking Joe DiMaggio declares from a 1980s poster-sized ad above the coatrack, "This city wasn’t built by frightened people." On the shelves running to the ceiling behind Seidenberg’s counter, a strip from a larger painting dangles via a single tack. It features a series of brightly colored abstract shapes, some shadows, and, right at eye level, a bared breast. Just, you know, a conversation piece. Every window is covered, courtesy of interior design firm Whimsy, Flair & Throwback. Lethem told a few friends about the place and those friends told a few more friends. Patricia Marx showed up for a Talk of the Town piece, noting among other key features the proprietor’s old Brooklyn accent and signature missing teeth (only one readily visible, an upper right incisor). Seidenberg coordinated with visitors via telephone and, “Whoa!” the cutting edge, a social network. For a few years in the late aughts, The New Inquiry made it a headquarters for festivities, hosting frequent readings. “Brazenhead gave me the space in New York City to grow up,” says Rosenfelt. “So few spaces allow that. I found out what I was doing, why I was doing it, what I cared about, and what, if The New Inquiry was going to be a thing, I'd like to have it be.” From his position at the front of the store, Seidenberg will speak of the New York he knew growing up and what changes the decades have wrought; of his mother and father; of the family dentist to whom he loyally returned for decades as the elder gentleman would remind Seidenberg of his parents; of his wife, Nikki, her years as circulation manager and “emotional lynchpin” for Rolling Stone magazine; of their three-legged pit-bull, Ava, and American terrier, Rosie; of Roy Lavitt, childhood friend, overseas thespian, and head of Brazenhead’s marketing department (i.e. he has drawn cartoons adverting the shop for each incarnation); favorite movies, particularly those starring Burt Reynolds; of the 1980s, a time when so many in the city momentarily lost their way; of culinary achievement (e.g. “Food is something we got right. There are some good snacks...I don’t want to live in a world without snacks. It’s not a Julie Andrews thing, I just like snacks.”); of any writer you care to mention; of various terms ending in ‘-archy’ (e.g. “You can’t fill your beer can with someone else’s whiskey and call it anarchy!”); of how to elicit quick laughter as a puppeteer (trade secret: have the puppets hit each other); of pockets (e.g. “I feel like humans have too many pockets. Half the time I lose things, they’re in my pockets.”); of his adventures as someone licensed to conduct marriages in New York State (i.e. he recently married two writers in a ceremony held on the Brazenhead premises). And that, honestly, is only the tip of the conversational iceberg. Rosenfelt provides an apt anecdote: Once, I gave a talk to employees and executives of a Chinese publishing house for Pratt University. They didn't speak English, so I had a translator with me. I described the importance of informal space and used Brazenhead as an example. After the talk, they approached me to ask if they could visit, which of course I was happy to facilitate. That visit was a true delight for both me and Michael -- the space was so special, so essentially New York -- they all seemed to light up and told me through their translator that it reminded them why they cared about books. One of them bought Walt Whitman and asked Michael to sign it, as though he was the author. We laughed about it, but I thought that it made cosmic sense. Michael is large, he contains multitudes. Henry Miller and John Cooper Powys, fixtures of 1920s Greenwich Village, look out in black and white portrait from above a glass-fronted bookcase. Wander from room to room and you will find sections for Art, the Russians, the Japanese, the French, the Spanish, the otherwise translated, the rock 'n' rollers, the noir, the erotica, the memoir, The New Yorker writers, the paperback fiction, the poets, the '60s, the movie-related, the collected letters, the sci-fi, the thrillers, and, all the way in back, replete with cushioned bench for intimate conversation, the first-edition room. “The best things you stumble across aren’t for sale,” observes editor and critic Brian Gresko, “but are part of Michael’s personal history, or the cultural history of New York City, or, as is often the case, both.” It was never going to last forever. That, for better and worse, has always been the imminent truth of Brazenhead Books. Scan any of the retro cover designs, titles long out of print, lurid paperback editions, and those that maybe never should have been published to begin with: marooned and made singular by the passage of time, the attrition of their mass-produced peers -- curiosities now, corners curled, paper yellowed. Remarkable objects. In effect, the book trove is like a search engine you can stand inside of. Not such an efficient one, sure, but way more pleasurable probably for that very reason. Word of eviction came down in the fall. Apparently, it is not legal to operate a commercial establishment from a residential apartment. Following a bout of legal intrigue, final word arrived, an end date, the last hurrah: July 4th, 2015. As a contributor to The New Inquiry, Seidenberg regularly filed a column called “Unsolicited Advice for Living in the End Times.” “I’ve accepted the end times,” he says. “Not, like, in a Biblical way. I just did the math.” He may start writing the column again soon under his own banner. Perhaps it was the tuberculosis speaking, but Franz Kafka also was a writer who had accepted the end times, or at least made a literary ritual of performing with crushing comedic involution the fate in store for the hopeful and bright eyed, his irony as wide across as a blue whale’s jawbone. In the story, “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” Kafka writes from the perspective of a traveler named Eduard Raban, a young man on leave from his office job: “Just recently I read in a prospectus a quotation from some writer or other. ‘A good book is the best friend there is,’ and that’s really true, it is so, a good book is the best friend there is.” And that sentiment, Kafka’s Kafkaesque-ness notwithstanding, is where Seidenberg and Brazenhead Books figure on the involving literary tapestry of New York City history. (And the place of books in late capitalism -- the latter phrase included here in honor of The New Inquiry.) He fostered a place for writers and friends and friends who are writers, and maintained it in its current form, commercial vicissitudes be damned, for almost a decade. So if you happen to glimpse a few more writers than usual looking disconsolate at the new rooftop bar of your local supermarket or feeding pigeons along the cobbled borders of Central Park, you will know why. “Excluded middles,” muses will-executor Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 are “bad shit, to be avoided.” Brazenhead Books worked such avoidance pretty deftly. No middle ever was excluded from its quarters. At Brazenhead, the middle has thrived. “We need Brazenhead or something very much like it badly,” says Khakpour. “It's not optional at this point. Literary culture has become far too corporate -- Michael and Brazenhead are reminders of how and why to love books and authors.” In the months and years ahead, Seidenberg, Nikita, their dogs, plus the lion’s share of his books, will spend more time in a recently acquired farmhouse upstate along the water. Tick-checks promise to become a regular thing. Evenings are likely to consist of watching the river, inventorying the stir of colors along the surface. Says Seidenberg of sitting there (so contentedly) and watching the river flow, “I used to think it was only a metaphor.”
“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” -- she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough? Nobody said they didn’t. With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” -- not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own. Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt. This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering -- whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain -- could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books. We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name -- my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting. Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow. This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn -- the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed. My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit. There was also Karenina from Idaho -- a girl from Idaho! -- and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors. I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read...although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant. One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new. There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return. To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know. If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers -- the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus -- then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real. Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O'Rourke
1. The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog. The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back. But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone. The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes -- present tense -- the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on. And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone. 2. To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener", Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the '70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the '80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" near what was then occupied Liberty Square. As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009. Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye. Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.” 3. Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before? In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing: Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us...Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one...To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be. With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply. There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other. Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel's demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don't seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.” In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: "There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture." The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving -- even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours. “There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It's fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.” Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there's something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.” Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room. This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do -- or do not -- match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against...”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon -- and Wallace. If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast. Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings -- we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there -- the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love -- exactly in the same way we did when we were children.” Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
1. “I think it’s going to be cultic,” Philip Roth said recently on the future of the novel. “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.” Of note is the fact that Roth was speaking to Tina Brown, master of ceremonies at The Daily Beast, an online attention-mill that roughly a year after running the quotation in question subsumed old school bearer of the magazine journalism standard Newsweek (inviting visions of joint enterprise, DailyNewsBeast). If the universe online can seem to undercut cherished notions of a solitary speaker delivering polished wisdom and revelation from the mountainside, by democratizing the availability of virtual mountainsides and slaking the requisite for polish - diversion always just a finger’s click away (hey, look at that…) - then it may well fall to the serious novelist to play early Christian to, for lack of a better imperial throne, Gawker’s Rome. Where, after all, are the fictional characters more obsessing than Charlie Sheen and the commentary he provokes? Good novels are the shields we raise in Charlie Sheen’s defiance. To snag an allegory from Adam Levin’s The Instructions (as the early Judeo-Christian/Rome analogy is likewise snagged, 10-year-old protagonist Gurion Maccabee wrestling with his role at the head of such a defiance), reading a novel is akin to entering a defile, “a thin breach through which only one person could pass at a time, a space that an army would have to break ranks in order to trek.” It is the solitary nature of a novel’s undertaking - the enchantment and transport of fiction, a shared secret – that gives it such formative weight for the individual reader. Days, weeks, months spent reading a book can’t be replicated by the blaze of movie-viewing, slippery ephemera, an experience vertiginous for want of words. Fiction can trigger strong feeling, and with a book in your lap, you own it – you read where you want to read, the story proceeds when you will it to proceed. In marginalia, you can record what a given sentence means to you. No such option exists in a movie theater, save for what gobbledygook you manage on your cell. Consciousness of any feeling the story elicits can slip away in the light of the lobby, the smell of popcorn, your companions’ faces, seen again as if for the first time… Chase that insight later (rent the movie, cue it up on your laptop), and what you may end up with are actors and pretense and motions, the drama of it all, minus what it was you brought to that moment originally, your own feelings made strange, superfluous. “Charlie Sheen,” you may find yourself saying, should Charlie Sheen be the star of the movie in question, “Remind me again of who it is I am.” But Charlie the F18 – he doesn’t know either. What you need, truly, is quiet and a book. What you need is a room of your own with a view of the bay. What you need is an apple and a bowler hat, a footstool on which to cross your ankles. Do such prescriptions, undergirded by the assumption that you need to be told what’s worth valuing, sound “cultic”? See how slippery is the off-ramp from the mass-media superhighway. 2. Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously is a good idea. Rather than binding everything in the filigree of words, pure excitement has its time and place, a place free of time - always among the young, and who doesn’t want to linger in youth’s hop-along self-assurance? To be undifferentiated, one of the smiling among the smiling, eyes sleepy, comfort a given. A book, in contrast, appears a tying down. What happens to you alone, the very aspect that gives a novel its sway, can be felt never to have happened at all, should there be no other face to acknowledge it. So mass media derive their dominance, for no matter the quality of the entertainment, you can turn to your companion exiting the theater and say, "Hey, how about that?" In contrast, a book that you read, one less than well publicized, becomes a kernel carried around for months, or years, before reciprocal consciousness is encountered. The deepening of feeling that goes with carrying that something, a novel’s two covers arguably the very foundation of the private self, may mirror, on its release into the everyday, the fanaticism of the true believer. Have you read the Levin? You must read the Levin. (Mind, this is a hypothetical voice; I’m not telling you that you have to read anything.) Four recent novels, Adam Levin’s The Instructions among them, take the cultic as their departure point: Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, being the other three. (Somewhere around the bend awaits Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.) While The Gospel of Anarchy and Big Machine portray cult largely as madness - albeit a seductive sort of madness - The Instructions and The Book of Dave render cult as that other thing it can be: the basis of a new religion (madness, be damned). All four invite reading, tongue-in-cheek, of sections of their text as scripture. The Instructions, naturally, is entirely scripture. 3. Taylor, in his debut novel, is a soul well familiar with the online storm, formerly a brave of HTMLGiant. That would be neither here nor there were his novel not so clearly a nod to the force the web holds on the mind. The Gospel of Anarchy opens with a drum solo: David, an ambivalent telephone survey operator in Gainesville and aficionado of online porn (“I imagined the girls in a kind of march, an endless parade celebrating—what? Themselves, I guess, or me.”) in the way that Jake Barnes saw bull and finely coiffed matador, decides to share nude photos he has of his ex with a listserv of fellow pervs. He only takes the courtesy of blackening out her face beforehand (a nod to Tucker Max?: “In so doing I had made her anybody—nobody. She was raw material now. She was YOUR FACE HERE.”). Self-destruction attained, he walks out the door and into the street, destination nowhere: “This was my life,” David reports. Until making some new friends, that is, residents of a commune called “Fishgut.” New friends, and new lovers, Katy and Liz, dynamo and devotee, who take him into their bed and belief system, a work in progress. For the first time in his life, David finds himself in church, there discovering “veneration of presence, the breaking down of the walls that make each of us one and one alone. A thing that is three that is also one. Godhead.” But this apprehension of religious experience (see the novels of Marilynne Robinson) seems a glaze, to race on its way to truer interest: the commune’s own encompassing mythos, “anarcho-mysticism,” the fervor for its founder’s return. “On Hypocrisy,” “A Different Trip Another Time Another Rain” and “The Moral” read the entry headings of the journal left behind by the mystery man. Taylor excels at deploying the word “still,” which is appropriate for a writer so gifted at depicting whimsy and volatility. Or, put another way: freedom, terrible freedom. Soon enough, The Gospel of Anarchy departs from David’s point of view, the narrative never quite touching down with such sure footing. Uneven as the web itself, a bold casserole of sensual encounter and deranged proclamation (“My silence was the secret of the secret, the silence of the mystic rose that was fully blossomed within me…”), the fact that Anything is still Something in Taylor’s work figures as nothing short of miracle. Loudly, even rapturously, Taylor succeeds in making the clamoring passion of his characters real, their raw, mercurial yearning a cry for “a world newly established.” In terms of acts of God, The Gospel of Anarchy is a tornado, tearing up the hill where rock ’n roll and cult meet. As Katy muses about an old Indian folktale evidently doctored by Christian conquerors: There’s something beautiful about it also, sort of running concurrently with the monstrosity. She can’t put her finger on it exactly, but it has to do with ideological miscegenation, how all cultures are just hodgepodges, collages, patch jobs. Try putting it this way: the monstrosity is the beauty. 4. Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, on the other hand, has the feel of earthquake, low, rumbling tremors years in the building. The Millions’ Edan Lepucki endorsed this one not long ago, duly citing its principal charm: voice. As a play on James Wood’s hysterical realism, a category that dates most certainly to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Big Machine lets loose a zany, nonsensical plot that never fails to stay grounded in the mind of narrator Ricky Rice. If the plot flabbergasts, LaValle’s attention to character will not, even to those of bit players simply passing through. His novel, like Taylor’s, takes fanaticism as its focus. “To be an American is to be a believer!” a vagrant portentously shouts at the novel’s outset. “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.” Spinning off tropes of serial noir and horror (e.g. vagrant as prophet), LaValle pits sweet good against callous evil, semi-recovered heroin addict Ricky (“Almost three years without a kiss. That’s a lot of love to lose.”) dropping his job as janitor in Utica, NY, to make for the great north woods of Vermont. Happy to ditch the grit of janitorial work, Ricky still entertains doubt after receiving mysterious summons: “When he gets you out into the country, well, there’s too many tales about this going badly for a guy like me, and I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.” The possibilities lead to a compound miles from anywhere - not so different from a writers’ colony, actually (LaValle makes the likeness overt in his acknowledgments) - where Ricky finds he has been selected to take part in a special directive to cull weird and captivating headlines from the mundane: “The Washburn Library doesn’t care who you were, only who you want to be. Out here we don’t call you cons. Out here you’re Unlikely Scholars.” When the library’s existence is threatened by a former disciple named Solomon Clay, Ricky and an authoritative white-haired stunner named Adele Henry are sent to the fictitious Bay Area peninsula, Garland (like Oakland just across from San Francisco), to try to sort things out. Devils who might be angels, a doomed millionaire and vagrants willing to act as suicide bombers all figure in the ensuing mayhem. The present action notwithstanding, Ricky’s repressed past functions as counter narrative: Ricky was raised in a cult, one whose three matriarchs (“the Washerwomen”) rewrote the Bible to conform to a more familiar context: “Finally you actually listen and ask yourself, Was there really a woman named Josephine in the Bible? Malik and his coat of many colors? Luther parted the Mississippi?” With humor and the deliberation of the self-doubting, Ricky grapples with his abrupt emergence on the world at large. Ungrounded, he is prone to manipulation by the Dean of the Unlikely Scholars, a man running his own sort of cult. If “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny” was the rallying cry against the British, then “Love Without Reciprocity Is Madness” could be that against Cult. And what a kind of madness it is. Late in the novel, Ricky wonders what his father saw in the Washerwomen’s doctrine, a passage that Taylor’s novel directly echoes: Their main idea was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken. Which one? Take your pick. All choices were correct. The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working. A new church had to take its place. Something small and defiant and renewed with concern. Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has. 5. The Book of Dave explores civilization on the post-apocalyptic island of Ham, where the engraved ravings of a mentally unbalanced, 20th century taxi driver named Dave have been taken as revelation. As such, all children must split time between their mothers and fathers, who live in gender-segregated communities, Dave’s wife having left him and taken their boy some five hundred-plus years before. The Book of Dave would have made an excellent novella or short story. The satire wears thin after page 100 or so (the word “irony” crops up again and again, the Hamites’ manner of denoting metal - for a while, a good joke) and the dialogue, rendered between English slang and text message (“Eye bin 2 ve playce vair ee berried ve Búk, an ee cum 2 me, an ee giv me anuvvah Búk – yeah, a nú I”), is often virtually indecipherable. Regardless, The Book of Dave headed the pack of this most recent spate of novels chronologically, and its take on the virulence of misogyny is more resonant than nicety allows. 6. Reaching back, what are the seminal 20th century novels about cults? Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (capitalism and its never-ending wonders as cult), and, long live the Chief, Tom Wolfe’s novelized non-fiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s all there: charismatic leader (Ken Kesey), enforced belief (be groovy), claustrophobic togetherness (are you on the bus or…?). The drama of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Kesey’s reckoning with just how cult-like the following he has garnered is, a lesson on spectacle and enthrallment that must speak directly to the modern gods of pop culture - and their marketing gurus. One lesson to take away? Wear cool pants. Counter to Wolfe’s classic, the anti-heroes of each of the more recent titles are on the inside. They drink the Kool-Aid (if not in quite as dark a sense as that phrase connotes today). The stubborn skepticism of LaValle’s Ricky Rice is the closest thing to Wolfe’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at a remove, outsider on the inside and the outside at once. Of the Pranksters and the fervor of their belief in Kesey, Wolfe writes, setting the undercurrent of his antic history: “And still the babies cry.”
If Facebook is making us sad, as a recently published study suggests, by seeming to crop from the picture all things unpleasant, presenting modern life as a sort of celebrity marriage, smiley, brittle and always going somewhere eager with cameras, then the call for meaningful fiction is to restore to the reader some sense of life as it could be, once was and would be again, but for the feeling to make it so. Good fiction colors our understanding of modernity, the train roaring obliviously forward. It sparks in negative space, what gets left behind. Carol Ann Page, one of six protagonists populating Kevin Brockmeier’s third novel The Illumination, nearly severs her thumb while cutting open a package from her ex-husband, its tip separating “like the hinged cap of a lighter.” Awaiting surgery, she finds that her wound has begun to glow – and not hers alone. Across the globe, individual pain has begun to emit light, a phenomenon newscasters label “The Illumination.” Carol Ann’s job is to create newsletters, assembling for her market-minded employer a listing of headlines that could sway the Dow’s money-flooded wavering. This world where pain shines out, making quaint any social network’s gloss, is the headline of moment for Brockmeier, one he unreels from thin air. Wonders disaster magnet Ryan Shifrin, a missionary, featured in the novel’s fourth section: “Was it discourteous to admit that you could see a person’s sickness playing out on the surface of his body?” The Illumination is philosophically rich. Absent, though, are sequences of sweeping wonder, commuters leaving open car doors dinging, the arthritic mother’s curled hand turned blindingly bright, a daughter crying at her feet. The Hollywood, that is. Instead, the great majority of people ticker by like notations on a reel, an effect Brockmeier duly cultivates. The novel’s final protagonist, Morse Putnam Strawbridge, a vagabond bookseller for whom the streets are home, observes passersby: On the corner, beneath the black canopy of a newsstand, he saw an abscessed tooth blazing like a newborn star. The stacked blocks of a degenerative disk disorder came leaning out a taxi. Behind the window of the drugstore were a pair of inflamed sinuses, by the counter a shimmering configuration of herpes blisters, on the bench a lambent haze of pneumonia. There is a lot of this sort of thing, visible maladies without people behind them. No Irvine Welsh, no Jeanette Winterson, no Bob Dylan - nothing nearing visceral incoherence here. An adept of sci-fi, a maestro of metaphor - The Illumination teems with it - Brockmeier is much more the miniaturist, excelling at the otherworldly, while taking intense interest in arcana, whether of character, practice or feeling. The novel’s uniting thread is a journal passed intentionally, and otherwise, from one character to the next. Within its pages, in a deceased woman’s handwriting, is a collation of her husband’s "I love you" notes, one of which he wrote for every day of their marriage. (J. Robert Lennon has an unnervingly funny spin on this kind of passion in flash fiction piece “Flowers” from the collection Pieces for the Left Hand.) It is exactly the Babel-like vertigo of such a project, a love note for every day – every day – of a marriage, that Brockmeier makes the centerpiece of his novel, and an ample one at that. For the chances that it will lose its original meaning, just like those maladies strolling by in the streets, are legion. Carol Ann, having been gifted the journal at the hospital immediately prior to its subject’s passing, wills a relationship to the words on the page from her empty house: “I love to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to you sleeping (Carol Ann, she added): the funny noises you make when you dream, the tiny pop of your lips separating.” “You’re too sweet,” Carol Ann says back to the journal, “Stop it.” Conceptually resonant, The Illumination opens up a flood of dramatic possibility it never quite harnesses. Would standards of beauty change, the photogenic and suffering claiming coverage over the callow and posturing? Is it possible the healthy might begin to envy the ill’s glow – or, conversely, find stigmatizing them to be simpler? (One section, among the novel’s best, does track attention-starved teens carving up their bodies for effect.) Would the elderly, in their abundance of light, attract greater reverence? Would boxing become as popular as football, a veritable fireworks display, competitors honing in on their opponents’ most brilliant spots, blinded in the approach to triumph? How would boardroom deal-making differ if the entire room could see Ken Lay’s stomach flip when professing that the fundamentals of his company were sound? What about the divide between bodily and psychological pain? What we get instead, among the lonely assortment, is Nina Poggione, a novelist with a mysterious illness, sores blossoming on her mouth one after the other, the worst kind of light show. At a book signing, she receives a t-shirt that reads ‘FICTIONAL CHARACTER.’ Engraving signature after signature on the page she marvels at its form, the limit of her agonized apprehension: “It was like the pattern she had once watched a moth draw with its wings in the condensation on her bathroom mirror.”
Maybe there are not enough lists in the world. In that spirit, now that the entire series has been published, I address The New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” by refining it down to an even thinner and more rarified number. Is this possible, the reader may ask—or prudent? Why not try, I say to the first question, and prudent, who knows: if it were a contest, the following are those I would declare winner and runners up. But it is not a contest, and perhaps all this choosing actually reflects is one reader’s head and heart. So let me ask: fiction, fiction, what do you make of me? 5. Nicole Krauss “The Young Painters” (from Great House) After viewing a painting in the bedroom of her male acquaintance, a married New York City writer makes use of a tragedy that befell him in childhood: two close friends of his, the creators of the painting, were fed sleeping pills and burned to death in a forest by their suicidal mother. With the proverbial fine-toothed brush, Krauss’s story succinctly unknots the psychological effects of necessary borrowing in the life of a writer. We move from initial obsession (“In the taxi home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children: the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale faces of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails.”) to a sort of catharsis (“[It was] as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.”) to the beginnings of reckoning (“In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”). Rendered as testimony in a courtroom, Krauss’s story probes questions of guilt and innocence in the imaginative life both slyly and directly. Like the hook to a catchy song, this one rekindled in my mind days and weeks after I had first read it. 4. Daniel Alarcón “Second Lives” “People talk a lot these days about virtual reality, second lives, digital avatars. It’s a concept I’m fully conversant with, of course.”: the younger son of South American parents compelled to return from Baltimore years before his birth due to an expired visa narrates the story of his older brother’s immersion in America, where old Baltimore friends agree to take the older brother into their Birmingham, Alabama home in the 1980s—and how his now distant family south of the equator struggles with what to communicate to him. Alarcón takes on the human side of heavy socio-political realities with a light hand. His narrator whose words, at times, seethe with resentment sees in the memory of his older brother a bully whose tactics mirror the dark side of a seductive, all encompassing American mythos: Just before he left, he’d warned me with bared teeth, frightening as only older brothers can be, not to touch a thing. In case he came back. If I were to change anything, Francisco said, he’d know. “How?” I asked. “How will you know?” 3. C.E. Morgan “Twins” (subscription required) Scope is something I admire in fiction, the willingness to address a wider world through the restricted window of a short story, and Morgan’s premise is rich with scope: twins, one light skinned (Mickey) and one dark (Allmon), born of the same black mother, navigate the perils and thrills of childhood while longing for their far off Irish American father. “Twins” opens with the kind of wide-lens portrait of a city (in this case Cincinnati) that's found in the novels of Balzac, but zips in, just as quickly, on the vibrant, vulnerable lives of the characters. Of Allmon, Morgan writes: “He learned to wait before he knew what waiting was, learned to want before he had the words to want with.” Neither does she eschew the lyrical, a style which perfectly matches the kind of longing her characters harbor: “Look,” his father said again, and [Allmon] looked and all he would remember later was the river like a snake, and barely the city at all—but what a city! A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, forming the circlet of a crown. A jagged cityscape of steel and brick and glass, with its own bright nightless burn and, beyond it, the fretful, historied amplitude of Kentucky, that netherworld. This was Cincinnati—the capital of pork, the first truly American city—sprawled before the eyes of two little boys under the momentary aegis of one Mike Shaughnessy… 2. Chris Adrian “The Warm Fuzzies” More than the others on this list, Adrian’s fiction is funny. There was no dearth of funny to be found among the “20 under 40” (Gary Shteyngart, Joshua Ferris, Karen Russell, Wells Tower), but Adrian’s funny registered as somehow the most original and otherworldly—even if his protagonist happened to be as recognizable as a teen in a Christian family rock band. (Or is that not recognizable?) One in a series of black foster siblings, a boy named Paul, or Peabo, takes up the tambourine in the rehearsal garage of the Musical Carter Family of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Within days, middle daughter Molly finds herself involved with the newcomer in an episodic, after hours interpretive dance-off that verges on the inappropriate. Molly attempts to reconcile the Peabo of daylight with the Peabo of night: There was the boy who had sneaked into her room to offer up the little dance for her interpretation, and then there was the boy who arm-wrestled with Craig and did algebra equations for fun with Colin. She could understand if there were two boys in him, since she had felt there were two girls in her, one for the regular voice that said regular things about people and one that spoke a language made up only of cruel insults. If she stared in the bathroom mirror long enough, she thought she could catch that other girl’s features super-imposed in brief flashes upon hers… 1. Dinaw Mengestu, “An Honest Exit” (from How to Read the Air) The son of an Ethiopian refugee delivers an off-the-cuff account to his privileged students in an Upper West Side classroom of his father’s passage from Ethiopia to a Sudanese port town to Europe, England and America, making free with factual veracity. The students are enthralled: As I walked home that night I was aware of a growing vortex of e-mails and text messages being passed among my students. Millions of invisible bits of data were being transmitted through underground cable wires and satellite networks, and I was their sole subject and object of concern. I don’t know why I found so much comfort in that thought, but it nearly lifted me off the ground, and, suddenly, everywhere, I felt embraced. As I walked down Riverside Drive, with the Hudson River and the rush of traffic pouring up and down the West Side Highway to my right, the tightly controlled neighborhood borders and divisions hardly mattered. I found Mengestu’s story to be haunting in the way of Krauss, thematically poised in the way of Alarcón, visceral and sweeping in the way of Morgan, and, well, maybe not quite as funny as Adrian. But it didn’t have it to be. Echoing real life incident, such as the case of Joseph Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke who claimed to have served in the Vietnam War while teaching it to his students, or, more dubiously, the memoirs of James Frey, Mengestu relays how spinning fact into fiction can bring light to the lives of young minds. Broadly put, The New Yorker appears to favor stories about great divides and mixed identity. Conveniently, there is something endemic to these boundary lines, their reinforcement or blending or blurring, that literary fiction speaks toward well. So, with mine listed above, I invite you to cite your own favorite short stories from the past year, New Yorker endorsed or no. Because, of course, there were many worthy others; the New Yorker list just makes for all it was ever meant to be: a starting point. We can call the one that follows “The Infinite under the Same All Embracing Sky.”
1. James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine. No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program. He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness. His hair was dyed orange. How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks? Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room? We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign). "Desire in fiction" was the ostensible topic. The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked. He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand. I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl. A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction). On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read "Franco – NY Schedule." The urge to smile was now almost overpowering. I fought it back. James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.” I rose out of silence to make my own comment. Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.” Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point. Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco. When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying. “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee. His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man. He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes. It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility. There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee. When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken. And I could have saved them that look by simply saying "Sure." But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco. So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away. Then, just as quickly, turned back. “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious. 2. Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.” Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it. It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem. The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils. Each section has high points. Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me. I open my mouth and out fly fists.” Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job. How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone? His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience. In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making? Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.” The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco. I couldn’t help it—I was smiling. Okay, I had passed up on coffee. Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much. Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it? But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.