Notable American Women: A Novel

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Upscale, Artisanal Bullshit of the Highest Order

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Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.

Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.

In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.

Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:

If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.

If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:

And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.

Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:

And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.

There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.

Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”

In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.

If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:

And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.

Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”

The Unelectable in Literature: A Rogue’s Gallery

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As the 2012 presidential election comes to an end, each candidate’s political and personal life has been vetted, his message honed, and a team of advisers assembled to shield him from any unwanted drama. This list considers those literary political or public figures who would not have withstood much scrutiny in the modern age. In contrast to the predictable quality of even the most captivating political biography, these tales favor the eerie or the bizarre over the electable in their consideration of political life. There is an element of fiction in all successful politics, but these works show the deliriously entertaining distortions that result when fiction (or creative nonfiction) asserts its authority over the political realm. John Cowper Powys’s epic poses the following question: if getting caught with a dead girl or a live boy is political suicide, what does an affair with an endangered, aboriginal giantess portend for a prince about to ascend to the throne? How would Charles Kinbote’s claims about his native Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire hold up in the age of PolitiFact? Ben Marcus’s dystopian allegory-cum-bildungsroman­-cum-anthropological study lets us ponder what debate format would best suit Jane Dark, the pantomiming leader of a political party called the Silentists. A Henry James’s story, “The Private Life” asks just what happens to a figure with a preternatural knack for finding a public when nobody is around. Finally, Gertrude Stein’s authorized autobiography of her lover and modernist Paris explores why the military should embrace the avant-garde or risk obsolescence. Each work puts forth a character who, however indelible, remains doggedly unelectable. 

1. John Cowper Powys, Porius
The time is 499 AD, and for Porius, the prince of a kingdom in Wales, the new century cannot come quickly enough. The Roman authority that installed his clan has long since crumbled, and the realm is threatened by an impending Saxon invasion. The young prince must also contend with a firebrand preacher spreading an aggressive new Christian religion hostile to local customs, a fragile coalition of oft-warring ethnic tribes, a plotting druidical leader, imperious Arthurian knights, and a beguiling sorceress who has infatuated King Arthur’s counselor, Merlin. Oh, and there are also two aboriginal giants lurking about, one of whom Porius, in his most spectacular dereliction of duties (political and marital), pursues over the mountainous terrain and seduces. Hiking the Appalachian Trail indeed. The novel dramatizes one long political and religious crisis, but the most fantastic thing about this fantastical novel is Porius’s sensuous exploration of his private sensations amidst the public chaos. Porius, the “strongest as well as the craziest man” in the kingdom, chooses to ruminate on the nature of the Pelagian heresy or “cavoseniargize,” a Powys neologism for a rapturous state in which “his soul found itself able to follow every curve and ripple of his bodily sensations and yet remain suspended above them.” By the end of the novel, Porius has become a kind of Herculean Lambert Strether, an ambassador who seeks not to impose his will on his roiling domain but rather derive an intensely personal moral from its upheavals.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” As that question is posed repeatedly by each political party, it is perhaps worth musing on how the narrator/commentator of Pale Fire would respond to a similar question after the Karlist Revolution overthrew the monarchy and exiled him from his “blue, inenubliable Zemba.” After all, in Charles the Beloved’s reign, the issues beguiling American politics today were blissfully resolved: “The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer…Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state…Parachuting had become a popular sport.” Granted, this utopia exists solely in the (gloriously) demented mind and “wistful thinking” of a madman, but still, decent healthcare and parachuting as a national sport? Kinbote’s flights of fancy have little to do with some of the more squalid falsifications and misrepresentations to which American politicians resort; rather, as he confides to John Shade, the poet whom he has “saturated” with his Zembla, “once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true, and the people will come alive. A poet’s purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor.” (Oh, to hear Kinbote’s account of racing in the Zemblan Marathon!) A noble goal: should leaders lie, at least do it in verse.

3. Ben Marcus, Notable American Women
Ben Marcus, at once the guinea pig, greatest hope and greatest disappointment of the warring parents whose narratives bookend his own “secret history of women in American townships,” can remember a time when “historic leaders shouted their hearts out to the world, lecturing feverishly until their bodies collapsed and they died.” Yet by the time Ben narrates his perverse bildungsroman, those leaders, presumably male, have been “shushed,” as has Ben’s father, who is imprisoned in a grave-like cell in the family’s backyard by a cultish group of women, the Silentists. These Silentists, led by the enigmatic, powerful Jane Dark, seek to achieve what they call a New Stillness, to bring about a revolutionary, distinctly feminine, world silence and institute semaphore as the primary form of behavior. The Silentist movement is an anti-populist one, as in Marcus’s world, people (and the language they spew) are the problem; they are “areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots.” The political solution lies not in appeals to personal responsibility but in a full-throated defense (as much as possible for the Silentists) of government intervention and organizations: The Woman’s National Pantomime Group, The Akron Stillness Center, the Ohio Pillow Talk Council, and the American Naming Authority. The author even recommends that “public money should be used to deploy roving masseurs to careers citizens of our public areas so their bodies might better yield to speech and weather broadcasts streaming from this book.” Now that’s a stimulus. The tools with which they attempt to bring about the New Stillness — “witness water” that becomes imprinted with certain behaviors, language enemas, a new all-vowel language causing less disturbance in the weather, a chew stand (recommended for every household), daily “wind-ambush baths,” vigorous pantomime — constitute an absurdist, prescriptive guide for how to revitalize a worn out language, an effort to combat the “failure to traffic language with any newness” and to find, in a new collective behavior, “unprecedented utterances.” Ben is the subject of the Silentists’ increasingly futile experiments to raise a child best adapted to this new world, and the familial struggle at the heart of the novel between deposed father and ascendant mother broadens out over to a larger struggle for political power and over the Logos itself.

4. Henry James, “The Private Life”
The tightly plotted ghost story unfolds with mathematical precision under the backdrop of a “great bristling primeval glacier” at a Swiss resort hotel. The narrator and an accomplished stage actress, Blanche Adney, investigate the unusual behavior of two figures: Lord Mellifont, an aristocrat who is all public and had no corresponding private life,” and Clare Vawdrey, a “great mature novelist” who is “all private and had no corresponding public [life].” Vawdrey’s social personality is one of “economy;” his opinions are “sound and second-rate,” he feels comfortable in the “flat country of anecdote,” and he exhibits none of the rare feelings found in his masterful novels. Lord Mellifont, by contrast, “expend[s] treasures of tact” and is marked by a “plenitude of presence.” He seems to exist solely to charm “an immense circle of spectators,” each conversation about him “take[s] the form of anecdote,” and he is less a flesh-and-blood specimen than a “style;” in short, James has created the prototype for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The ghostly element of the story is an elegant way to demonstrate the costs and payoffs of each social strategy — the one frugal, the other profligate. I won’t reveal the twist, but James homes in on the ominously spectral quality of public life, the unheimlich nature of a man who is excessively good at putting strangers at ease: “I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of [Lord Mellifont’s] performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self his lawful wife.”

5. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Midway through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the narrator notes that Gertrude Stein is “one of the few people of her generation to read every word of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great,” and at the very end of the memoirs, she coyly suggests an alternative title for her work: My Life with the Great. Both details hint at the ambitious, world-historical scope of Stein’s modernism. Stein, the “Mothergoose of Montparnasse” and hostess of the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, is also a general-like leader of the avant-garde. Of course, part of the memoir’s pleasure is reading the gossipy accounts of feuding artists in Paris. In one amusing episode, she diplomatically appeases the fragile egos of her painter-guests at a dinner party by sitting each across from his own picture, which makes them all “so happy that we had to send out twice for more bread.” And yet while chronicling each petty intrigue, Stein is never shy about trumpeting the heroic nature of her modernist project, beginning with the claim that the “three little Matisse paintings” she brought back from Paris were the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. But perhaps more striking are the geo-political implications she sees for the modern. When Stein asserts that “[the Germans] cannot…possibly win this war [WWI] because they are not modern,” she casts herself and the avant-garde as vital to military success as the war cannot leap over the aesthetic; military success is bounded by modernity, and Stein and her set are modernity incarnate. The wonderful scene in which a “spell-bound” Picasso sees a camouflaged cannon rolling down the boulevard Raspail makes this connection explicit: “It is we that have created that, he said. And he was right, he had. From Cézanne through him they had come to that.” Whether Picasso’s aperçu will lead to a joint Pentagon-NEA project is anyone’s guess; regardless, Stein’s alternately blustery and revelatory claims about modernity, national character, military might and literature make for great sound bites: “She realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.” Gertrude Stein approved this message.

Lethal Language: Ben Marcus Urges Writers to March on the Enemy

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In the days prior to the publication of his second novel, The Millions had the pleasure to chat with Ben Marcus about The Flame Alphabet — an apocalyptic tale about the toxicity of human language — along with everything from the development of his work and the labels people assign fiction to the ranking of MFA programs and the perils of colicky babies.

The Millions: The Flame Alphabet — which features first-person narration and a single protagonist — has been described as your most “accessible” book to date. Would you agree with this assessment? Given the more “experimental” nature of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String , how did the structure and prose style for The Flame Alphabet come about?

Ben Marcus: Who is setting the bar for what you call accessibility? The definition of “accessible” is “easy to understand,” and so much of the fiction I love is just… not that. It is complex and rich and sometimes puzzling, and it stays with me precisely because I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sometimes it is lucid and approachable on the surface, and other times the language is congested in order to fire up strong sensations. Accessibility is such a strange, sad measure of the writing I love. Dora the Explorer is accessible. The Unconsoled is not. But I have never been deliberately difficult, if that’s what you’re getting at. That has no appeal to me. I’ve always tried to write the fiction that compels me the most — I have to feel passionate, engaged, and nearly desperate if I’m going to get anything done. When I’m working on material that is conceptual or abstract or in some way difficult, I strive for clarity, transparency, a vivid attack. After Notable American Women was published, I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to try something different, just on the compositional level. I wanted a single narrator, a precise timeline. I was curious what narrative momentum would deliver to me and how that would impact the fictional world I wanted to create. I was just hungry to put on a new disguise and go prowling. At that point I had no idea what the book would be, but I must have been craving order, some formal simplicity. Of course I quickly found a way to muck it up, but for a little while it was like writing with a new body and the whole experience woke me up and mattered, at least for a while. If The Flame Alphabet, as a result, is easier, then that’s an accident. If anything, I hope it is a much harder book, on the emotional level at least.

TM: How do you view the development or progression of your work, from The Age of Wire and String to Notable American Women and now The Flame Alphabet?

BM: The simple answer is that I have changed my techniques in order to avoid the relentless sameness of my material, but I have probably only found new costumes, not new creatures entirely. In the past, if I wanted to sound a note on a piano (in prose), I didn’t just have to purchase and install the piano, I had to build it. But before I built it I had to grow the trees whose wood would yield the piano, and probably I had to create the soil and landscape through which those trees would burst. Then there was the problem of the fucking seeds. Where did they come from? I had to source them. With such mania I was either onto something or I completely misunderstood what a fiction writer was supposed to do. Simple things, even entirely undramatic ones, could not occur unless I created them from whole cloth. I was superstitious about taking anything for granted, but it also locked me into a kind of fanatical object fondling that could, on a bad day, preclude any exploration of the human (even though the process of trying to remake the world on the page is fairly, pathetically, human). This set of interests kept me away from what is usually called narrative. It wasn’t some ideological position, or an artistic stance, it was just one set of obsessions winning out over another. On the other hand, I think that I have always tried to create feeling, and then to pulse it into the reader with language. It’s very difficult to figure out how to do this. Storytelling is one way — conventional narrative or whatever you want to call it — but are there other methods worth exploring? The ground shifts, and I change my mind about what might work. How to create immense, unforgettable feeling from language? This ambition hasn’t really changed, it’s just that I want to cultivate new approaches, to try to circle in on a more vivid way to accomplish it.

TM: Was your writing process at all different with The Flame Alphabet given its more traditional narrative structure?

BM: It was. I wrote The Flame Alphabet relatively quickly, in less than two years. I worked every day and usually produced a few pages. I rarely reread the previous material each day before starting to work (whereas in the past I have been a compulsive re-reader before beginning the day’s work). I also, against my nature, allowed myself to use functional, placeholder language sometimes in order to keep my momentum, telling myself that I would go back later to make the language more interesting. And I did go back later, and later, and later. Unlike with my earlier books, I cut as much as I kept, or more. I have four or five hundred pages of deleted material. After I finished the first draft, I cut a 70-page section in the first third of the book and re-did it from scratch. I also cut a 50 page section, in Part 2, that introduced a new set of characters and conflicts. These people never returned. Thank god.

TM: I read somewhere that you began writing Notable American Women after discovering an old — and somewhat patronizing — encyclopedia actually titled Notable American Women. The Flame Alphabet is a book about the toxic language of children. What was the genesis of that idea?

BM: The idea came about when an obsession — language — collided with a fraught emotional container — family. I think of language as being tremendously potent. It causes deep feelings in us, so much so that its effects would seem nearly chemical, medical. Once I started to think of language as medical, a kind of drug, I wondered what an overdose would be, what would happened if the drug of language was toxic to some people if taken in high doses. This alone wasn’t that interesting, but it did give the book a basic problem, a conflict, to work from. At the time I was thinking about characters who have something crucial taken from them — what they’ll do to recover what matters most to them. So I took language away from Sam, my narrator, but that wasn’t enough of a loss. He also had to lose his child, his family. And these losses had to be connected to each other, maybe inextricable: thus the child as weapon. The child you love is the one who is harming you. This made the morality of the problem much more difficult, more inaccessible. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but I think that I was looking to escalate the problem at every point in the novel. If there was a crisis, it needed to deepen, to worsen, and the escalation had to maybe beget the plot. This all sounds a bit too insider baseball. I didn’t know a thing when I started.

TM: In the book, Sam and Claire are part of a secretive and strange Jewish sect? And toxic language is, by some, thought to emanate first from Jewish children. What was behind your decision to make your main characters Jewish?

BM: The forest Jewry that Sam and Claire practice is invented (maybe). They worship in isolation, in the woods, receiving their Rabbi’s sermons through a complex, hard-to-operate radio that frequently fails them. But even if their process is invented, the content of their religion is tied closely to Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah — it is not strikingly fictional. They respect the ineffable and see religious wisdom as essentially nonverbal, enigmatic, and elusive. The cautions against language, against understanding itself, to me come from not just Kabbalah but from Christian mysticism as well. I quickly determined that if I made up a name for this religion it amputated the whole thing of its vitality. I wanted the religious activities in the book, for all of their strangeness, to feel believable, to feel true. To me, Judaism, with its deep respect for intellectual interrogation, for the slippery vicissitudes of Torah interpretation, could accommodate a sect like the forest Jews in this book. As this sect started to take shape, and I explored the isolated nature of such anti-communal worship, the intense loneliness of true religious commitment, this produced a lot of dramatic material, and the potential for sorrow. Connected to this, I have always wanted to invent a religion in fiction, and to me this was a chance to do so in a way that felt bound to my own personal religious experience.

TM: I was discussing The Flame Alphabet with a friend and she said that children’s language as a toxin was an idea that only a parent would have. As a father of two, what impact do your children have on your writing or the way you approach your work?

BM: My daughter, who is seven now, had fierce colic as a baby, and her scream was military grade. I remember once I was changing her diaper on the bed and out of nowhere she released a scream so piercing, so beyond anything I’d ever experienced at the sonic level, that I nearly threw up. But those days are gone. She is a sweetheart with a gorgeous voice and we tease her sometimes because even if she tried she can’t scream like that anymore. One thing that’s been interesting to me about having kids is how I now see myself differently as a son to my parents. I am more aware, I think, of how easy it is to take them for granted as providers: machines of support and love. Parents are the people you can sometimes safely experiment on, testing dark moods, dumping anger and fear. Bragging. There are so many behaviors you can only really safely show to a parent.

TM: Shifting gears a bit, when it was published, some readers said that Notable American Women was not experimental enough. So that is possibly something you’ll hear about The Flame Alphabet. Does being labeled an “experimental” writer” mean anything to you?

BM: Anyone who believes that you can make art from language is part of a small, nearly-vanishing community, and we should all form a wedge and march on the enemy. Do we need different uniforms in this struggle, different stripes on our arms so that it’s clear who the realists are? Maybe, but I care less and less. I find myself fascinated by various techniques of fiction writing, and ever since early college I have tried to read all across the divides, before I even know there were divides. I love what William Trevor can do with a short story, and at the same time David Markson is staggeringly brilliant to me: the simplest language, yet utterly original on the page. We are in a time when narrative tradition is getting honed and exquisitely refined by the novelists who are considered major: very subtle improvements on an established method. But the premise of art is that writers will seek new methods to reach people with language. This isn’t experimental at all: it’s traditional. It’s a tradition for artists to push forward and try to do new things. Such a project has defined the making of art from the very beginning. There’s nothing more traditional than that.

TM: Shifting gears again, every year we see a ranking of “the best” MFA programs, followed by numerous rebuttals to the list of “best” MFA programs, followed by vigorous defenses of various MFA programs. As someone who has been both a student and a professor at MFA programs (at Brown and Columbia), what’s your reaction to this annual ranking and subsequent controversy?

BM: I don’t pay much attention to the rankings of these programs. I do spend time trying to improve the fiction concentration at Columbia, and I am very much engaged by the question of how best to teach students of fiction, how workshops should be structured, how the secondary reading courses might work, what form of criticism can best incite a student’s improvement. I’ve been teaching in MFA programs for over 20 years now. I wonder how to make the Columbia program matter as much as it can, how to build its value to student writers, how to improve it at every level. I care a lot about teaching, and what’s interesting about MFA programs is that there is not a lot of history to fight against. It’s relatively new, when it comes to academia, anyway, and this is, I think, liberating.

TM: What are you working on now?

BM: I am editing a collection of stories, which should be out sometime in 2013.

TM: And looking at the year ahead from the point of view of a reader, what books are you most excited about?

BM: John D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Michael Chabon’s new novel, Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection. Then there’s a novel by some freaky writer I’ve never heard of named Heidi Julavits. It’s called The Vanishers, and it’s amazing.

TM: Returning to The Flame Alphabet, the book trailer — featuring the animation of Erin Cosgrove — is intensely beautiful and creepy. How did you come to work with Erin?

BM: I met Erin through Creative Capital, an angelic organization that is boundlessly helpful and generous to artists. I watched a feature-length animation of Erin’s called What Manner of Person Art Thou? and I was just stunned by its genius. So I asked her if she might want to make a short film that could serve as a book trailer, and she agreed. We bounced around a bunch of ideas but we kept returning to the notion of a traditional trailer. Because Erin works in animation, she could animate whole scenes and we could build up the kind of atmosphere that’s in the book. Erin worked tirelessly, for months, and the result is what you see. I’d really love to work with her again.

Image Credit: Flickr/Double–M

Ask a Book Question #76 (Good Readers, Good Readings)

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Traci writes in with this question:
I’m working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I’m wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I’m looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose).

Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off?
Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one’s work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”)

I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still.

Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You’d think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn’t. The best readings I’ve been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula.

Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That’s not a slight on their work. But let’s face it – a reading is performance. And some do it better than others.

I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That’s always a nice touch. An author’s personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history – this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies.

The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke’s Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn’t even a reading – it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious – a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales.

Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don’t actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I’d never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I’ve seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I’ve heard him interviewed since, and he’s always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm.

Edan Lepucki: I’ll admit, I prefer to read an author’s book on my own than have it performed to me–that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author’s own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I’ve attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she’d begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I’d willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted.

The only reading I’ve attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I’d seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell’s poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell’s reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey’s. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader–it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain’s preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre.

Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term “performing” advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing “the author Ben Marcus.” Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace’s prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking – “I seem to have misplaced my saliva,” he said at one point – but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I’m finding impossible to describe, it was riveting.

Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch – a hero of my semi-rural adolescence – read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem’s composition, strategies, place in the author’s oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.)

In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies – nightly, and en masse – it’s easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me – as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York – that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” – even if the occasion is just a Levi’s commercial.

Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard.

Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable.

Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading.

The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing.

Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens’ rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man’s remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading.

Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading – who are the best you’ve seen?

Surprise Me!