“What’s king cake?”

Silence.

Five of us have come into the kitchen to refill our wine glasses. Four pairs of eyes are scanning me in confusion. The silence breaks with someone’s machine gun-like titter.

“You’ve never had king cake?” one of them replies, hand on her hip.


New Yorker cover

The New Yorker continues the full court press of it’s ’20 under 40′ list; I guess that makes sense, if you’re going to try to define a literary generation you should probably publish its members in your magazine.

In “The Young Painters,” a piece of fiction appearing in The New YorkerMs. Krauss delivers a powerful story about the provenance of a painting.   The story comes across as a confession, of sorts, like a person might tell a judge after harboring the awful truth for years, and when it all comes out, it does so with great force.  The story turns to the severely morbid almost immediately when we learn that the people who created the painting were children, and they met with a gruesome end at the hands of their deranged mother, but I’ll let you sniff that part of the story out yourself.

I’m not sure if story is a part of Great House, her third novel, which will be published this fall, or if it’s a stand alone story.  If we take the Franzen school of thought, at least from The New Yorker’s point of view, then this work of fiction from Ms. Krauss is a slice of her new novel.  After reading this story, I’d like to read the novel, if the two are connected in some way, and I’d like to read it right now.  There is a smoky quality to the language here, it reminds me of stories that I once heard at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve in Rome, shared with a small group, revealed to everyone like lost treasure, and hard to forget.  At the same time, there is a modern feel (I don’t mean “modern” in the Frank Llyod Wright sense of the word, more “contemporary”) to our narrator, like she’s going through some form of crisis, a kind of awakening, or perhaps a realization that as a writer, there are at least three sides to each story.  At the same time this woman is miserable at having to deal with realities which come with writing a novel about her own father, and how she doesn’t know the difference between being a storyteller, and a person in her own stories, or life.

The story our narrator hears is told to her while she’s at the home of the dancer, and later on we find out that the story in question is reworked by our narrator and published in a “prominent” magazine.  It’s no accident that The Young Painters has been published, and I can almost see around the next corner, where this story might be going, or where Ms. Krauss wants me to think its going.  Either way, our narrator and Ms. Krauss are in on the trick, or somehow I was fooled, which happens to me quite often.  I’ll admit it, Ms. Krauss, you got me.

-JR



DH: Allegra Goodman‘s new short story in the May 3rd New YorkerLa Vita Nuova, does what’s almost impossible. It opens with “The day her fiance´ left” and avoids any trace of the bathetic. One way AG does this is to show her character in a striking action: Amanda takes her vintage wedding gown to the children’s art class where she teaches and has the kids turn it into a craft project.

Here’s another great stroke: radical emotions mean a disconnect from business as usual. When Amanda’s supervisor sees she is using her classroom as personal therapy, it lays the groundwork for her dismissal. I also loved her girlfriend’s line about how, when guys break off a commitment, they have someone else waiting in the wings: Her ex marries another woman that summer.

There is a schism here between women’s fiction and guy reads, isn’t there? I know that Goodman is interested in pulverizing Amanda to the bone in order to see what she can make of this character. So there is storytelling sense in having Amanda both jilted and fired. But it’s harder for me to imagine a story where the guy gets jilted and tries to recover. Guys wouldn’t read a story like that. They don’t ever want to see themselves as victims. They want to commit the act, even if it involves wrongdoing. Anything rather than be the sufferer. But women, it seems to me, will eat up a story like La Vita Nuova alive.

I wanted to find out what would happen to Amanda as well. I was fascinated that Goodman, employing a clarifying prose technique, managed not to turn me off by having Amanda wallow in emotions. There are no puddles of tears in this story even though Amanda is certainly entitled to cry. But there is no denial either. I’m a crier myself (“Oh, he’s crying again.”) so I’m impressed. Awesome.

Swift declarative sentences corral emotions. Sentences that move with the agility of cats. There are no leaden pauses, nothing to keep you from forward motion. As these cats…sentences…glide through the grass, no inert descriptive passages, like dead branches, impede their progress. Wonderful.

And when Amanda says that she would like to tell the wedding guests that the marriage is off but she would like to keep the presents, you get a sample of the subzero irony that recurs in every third or fourth line. What you sense of her sadness is in the warping of the sentences. Tear-free story, guys.

AG’s take on Dante’s La Vita Nuova is hilarious. It’s like the Marx Brothers take on the text and I’d like to see this interpretation get past a lit professor. Totally subversive. Male gaze be damned.

But AG wimped-out on me in the end. You have to read the story to see if you want to fight me on this. Lessons are learned. This is trite. Dark paths not taken: short story. Dark path taken: novel. Maybe it’s the temptation of short story writing to tie up everything too tightly in the end. With novel writing there is scope for more sophisticated forms of closure.

JR: I’m all for a guy getting a story published in the New Yorker, and James P. Othmer, (FOB), is a fan of Ben Loory (he told me that he’s been reading these Loory stories aloud to his kids at night. Me? I read ‘Monster Trucks’ to my son, I make all the sounds, and this makes my son happy), but to be perfectly honest with you, I felt a little threatened by the story “TV”.  I’d been hearing things, you know, chatter on Facebook, and some people had mentioned this story to me, and that Ben Loory doesn’t have this book of short stories under contract. Like I said, it’s great this got published in a place that only publishes 52 stories a year, and when you publish Jonathan Lethem’s talking dog story, you’re running out of ideas.  Talking dog stories, do you see what I mean, how is that even possible? A dog that talks? It’s not even funny to pretend that dogs can talk. So, stories like TV should be published more often in the New Yorker, but since that’s the only place to get a story published, really, the only place that matters, then I guess it’s important.

So there’s this guy, he is at home, late for work, watching TV, and he can’t get up, because he sees himself on the TV, going to work. Now this could be a comment on our society, how we are defined by our public personas, or it could by mystical, or magical realism (see, I can’t tell the difference, just call it magic, or realism, don’t put them together, it confuses me), but immediately I’m thrown off by the fact that a guy, any guy, can see himself on the television set while he eats his morning cereal and not flip the fuck out.  He watches his TV self go to work and talk to his boss, and do his job, he sees himself doing it, and the self at home is happy because the TV self has gotten all the work done that the guy sitting at home is supposed to do.

Let’s look at this from birds eye view. Who is this guy? And why is he at home, and not at work? We don’t know. But he is really freaked out, and happy about the fact that there is someone out there doing what he does, while he sits at home. The guy at home even says, I’m trying to figure this out, and I can’t. He then, (later in the story) realizes that his mind is like a fist, and he’s afraid to look at it because it might fly away, okay, why? But, then the man who has been watching himself on TV finally hears someone coming home, and it’s the guy on TV, there are now two guys, the same guy, occupying the same space, and guess what, it’s totally tossed on it’s head. This story is like a snow globe, you shake it, the snow falls, and it falls in the same place, but it looks really great when it falls, because it’s beautiful, so you do it again, and again, and again.  But the snow never changes, and it always falls to the bottom of the snow globe.  Then the room gets filled with more guys who all look the same, running around, like it all matters so much that they are in the same room.  What? Then Loory has the guy imagine he’s a doctor performing surgery, and the surgery goes well, and he gets to screw the hottest nurse, because all nurses are hot, right? At this point, I read to the end of the story, and really got worried, that maybe I was slipping off the earth, you know, because somewhere out there, there is an edge to the world, right? Read the story and decide for yourself. I like Loory’s writing and I’ll bet this collection has already been scooped up, probably by FSG, but man, am I confused.

Here is the continuation of a report on some big-name fiction writers I have seen in person. It could be interesting, though probably it is not. In Part I, we saw Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz. Let’s see more.

*

GARY SHTEYNGART and GEORGE SAUNDERS

I paid $35 to see the comic duo of Saunders & Shteyngart perform as part of the New Yorker Festival. This was in October 2009 at Cedar Lake Theatre in Chelsea.

They aren’t really a comic duo; I was just joking. They’re authors! Saunders has always been one of my favorites (read In Persuasion Nation) and I’ve loved both of Shteyngart’s novels. I was very excited for the event.

As everyone settled in, New Yorker arts editor Francoise Mouly made a brief introduction. She has a fancy accent and is very smart. “Oh, look, Francoise Mouly!” exclaimed a woman to her boyfriend/fiance/husband. “Yeah, it’s Francoise Mouly!” he responded with equal excitement.

At this point I should “reveal” that I attended the event wearing a George Saunders temporary tattoo. My friend, an even bigger Saunders fan, and Syracuse, NY native (like him), brought them with her. She had an In Persuasion Nation tat for each of us. Hers said “In Persuasion Nation” with a flower and vines wrapped around the lettering. She wore it on the inside of her forearm, near her wrist. My tat had a purple shape of the U.S. with the letters IPN in the center. I stuck it onto my tiny bicep. We felt cool, and I’d bet we were the only Saunders groupies in the house who had worn tattoos. But you never know.

Gary Shteyngart read first. He read a long section from his forthcoming novel, Super Sad True Love Story. He told the audience sheepishly that this would be his first time reading from the book, and that if it sucked, we should tell him. We knew that it wouldn’t suck.

The part he read from was about the main character, Lenny Abramov (destined to be another great Shteyngart Jewtagonist) bringing his Korean girlfriend Eunice Park home to meet his parents for the first time. As always with Shteyngart’s fiction, there was great dialogue.

Shteyngart did all the different voices of the characters quite well, acting out the lecturing father and over-the-top mother. People were in stitches, doubled over with laughter. Gary Shteyngart’s a funny writer. People came expecting humor, and they got some.

After Shteyngart finished, George Saunders came on to read. Shteyngart’s outfit had been pretty non-descript, but Saunders was wearing a corduroy jacket and a very “loud” tie. My friend commented that it was an ugly tie, but I wasn’t sure. It was certainly unconventional. The tie was orange and black and blue and red, with a white flower toward the bottom.

After everyone stopped noticing his tie, we were able to turn our focus to the story. Saunders was reading a short story called “Victory Lap” that had run in The New Yorker. The story was about a cross-country runner, which I liked, because I had been one of those myself. Saunders did all the voices, and performed them with even more differentiation and outrageous humor than Shteyngart did his. Saunders read very quickly, rushing through the story, making it exciting and frenzied.

If I were asked, with a gun to my head, to choose the better reading, it was the Saunders story. But both of them were great. The Q&A was uneventful, maybe because it was a New Yorker event. Most of the questions were kind of staid, except for when someone asked the authors what their favorite story was that they had done, and Shteyngart said, “Out of the two things I’ve written?” Everyone laughed at the person asking that question. Saunders said his favorite of his own stories is “Sea Oak.”

The event wrapped up and people filed out, but my friend and I lingered awkwardly because we wanted to show George Saunders our George Saunders tattoos. As we approached him, however, a woman who turned out to be Susan Sarandon slipped in front and introduced herself to Saunders. Susan Sarandon was with a guy, and she and her guy talked to Saunders for a very long time. They talked to Saunders for so long that a lot of people lingering, waiting to talk to him, gave up and disbanded. My friend and I stayed and finally, when we showed him our tattoos, he sort of vaguely smiled, though he didn’t laugh. We asked if we could get a photo with him and he invited Gary Shteyngart to be in the photo, which was fine with us. In the photo, Saunders looks pretty unamused.

This was a satisfying literary event and I’ll continue to read the work of these two funny dudes.

*

RICK MOODY and PAUL AUSTER

I didn’t really hear Moody do a reading, but I met him. It’s one of those stories I no longer think is as fascinating as I believed after it first happened.

I learned online that Rick Moody, who wrote The Ice Storm, was participating in a “Twitter fiction experiment” with a Brooklyn lit mag called Electric Literature. He had written a new, unpublished short story, and Electric Lit, on their Twitter feed, would be publishing the story as a series of tweets. I somehow convinced my editor/professor that this constituted Brooklyn news, so he said I could do a story about it for our class website. First, I called and interviewed the co-editors of Electric Lit. I asked them about the project with Moody. It was not the most fascinating phone interview I have experienced.

Then I learned—lucky timing!—that Moody would be introducing Paul Auster at a reading at 92Y in Manhattan that very night.

I went to the reading with the hope of interviewing Moody one-on-one, though I doubted it would happen. When I got there, I realized the place was a huge opera-style theatre hall, with multiple levels and a giant stage, and people were filing in, and I thought, “I’ll never get access to this guy. He’s going to peace out as soon as he introduces Auster.” Just before the reading began, I had an idea. I told an usher I was “with the press” and wanted to get backstage to where the authors are waiting. To my shock, this worked. He pointed the way. I walked down a hallway to a door and knocked. A PR woman opened the door and said I could write Moody a note. I scribbled down on my business card “Rick Moody, I’d like to interview you for a brief story about the Electric Lit Twitter thing. If you’re around after the show I’ll be in a Red Sox hat,” and still felt there was no chance.

The reading began. Moody came onstage and said “I wrote all of these really thoughtful remarks, but I’m going to try and just sound like a human rather than someone reading a canned introduction.” People laughed approvingly. Moody said that when he thinks of all the best young writers in New York, “they are all people who have been lucky enough to sit at Paul’s table.” I guess Auster befriends promising writers, like Jonathan Lethem, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer. That’s nice for them. I’ve read Timbuktu and hated it, but read The Brooklyn Follies and loved it, so I guess it evens out so that I, too, would enjoy eating dinner with Paul Auster. And his daughter Sophie could come. She’s hot.

When Auster came up, he said, “I paid Rick a lot of money to say all that.” It was smart to kick off his reading with a joke. I wondered if Salman Rushdie taught him about doing that.

Auster was reading from his new novel, Invisible. As soon as he began, I was jarred by the voice, which was 2nd person (“you”). But then I was more jarred by the scene he read, which was about incest. It was a graphic night in which a brother and sister (biological, yup, no Brady Bunch stuff here!) have tons of sex while their parents are away. Penetration, blowjobs, all that. The scene is like a big sex party. They go nuts on each other, except that they’re brother and sister, so jaws were dropping in the audience. Auster read quickly, but without shame. He projected nicely, and he enunciated. He’s kind of old school, I’m not sure how, but he seems that way.

As soon as he finished, after a big sexual crescendo in the text, Auster read, “And you began your education as a human being.” He said, “Thank you,” and then quickly shut the book and walked off the stage before the applause even began.

Then the other author came on. I forgot to mention there was another author. His name was Javier Marías and is supposed to be “famous everywhere but America,” which makes sense because I hadn’t heard of him. When he stepped up to the podium, he did a facial expression that showed he felt awkward and didn’t know how to follow what Auster just did. People laughed in shared sympathy and relief. Then I fell asleep in my comfortable seat.

After the uneventful Q&A I waited in the lobby and sure enough, Rick Moody came out. I was happy about this. We interviewed for a few minutes. He struck me as pretty normal, maybe boringly normal. He seemed a little sad—his eyes are kind of weary and sad. He was a cool guy, though. He seemed to have the attitude that it was no big deal to be giving me an interview, even though I kept thinking, “This is a big deal.” I wondered how much my opinion of him was tainted by my having heard about all the drugs he used to do. Moody mentioned that he is close with Jim Shepard and Lydia Davis. I thought that was cool. After I interviewed Moody I felt good, so I bought a copy of Paul Auster’s new novel and had him autograph it for my mom. Later, I gave her the book as a gift but thought awkwardly about the moment when she would read that incest scene. Welp, what can ya do.

*

These events were all fun. I like going to readings and if you are a writer or reader on TNB I bet you do, too. I’m going to keep going to readings, and maybe more semi-interesting things will happen.

Since we’re in holiday mode, you may be walking into a lot of rooms that you don’t ordinarily visit. I’ve been thinking about what’s most interesting to an autistic temperament like mine about such experiences: the background, the part that you don’t quite notice: the height of the ceiling, the quality of light, the footfall in the next room (Are there dishes clattering in the kitchen?), whether the room feels crowded or spacious, the ambience awkward…I’m-trying-to-be-a-good-host-but-I’m-not-quite-making-it, or, full-tilt, these are such cool people!

The background, like the quiet guest who you wonder about;…”Will he ever open his mouth…and if he does…what will come out?”…also seduces me in fiction.

I found “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story in the November 30th New Yorker by Don DeLillo, indispensable. So buy the New Yorker, read the story…and I’m also reading James Wood’s take on Paul Auster for sure…and then throw the New Yorker out. Especially avoid all those cloy-infested cartoons…as bad as junk food. New Yorker cartoons will literally rot your teeth.

Two serious boys, as serious as I can imagine only freshman can be, are walking from dorms to class in a desolate, because wintry, setting somewhere in the boondocks. Stage set: the dorms and the classroom complex, built like a blockhouse, the “Cellblock”, are some distance away from each other so, fine, we can eavesdrop on the boys as they walk and talk.

I love that these guys talk for the sake of talking. Makes you wonder if they’re gay. Only wonder, mind you, they probably aren’t. They’re guy friends. They focus on an elderly man shuffling much ahead of them with his hands behind his back. I commend DeLillo that he makes the gent they notice several generations older than the boys. This helps make the oldster “the other.”

First person narrator and Todd, his school friend, debate the old guy’s coat meticulously. It’s a private contest between them. They debate the facts. What kind of coat is this guy wearing? They point at each other a lot while they talk and when they meet on campus. This is cute. This  is also where in my reading I turned down the dial from gay to homoerotic adolescence.

I don’t know if these boys are going to be writers but they certainly talk with a mastery of detail that indicates that the first person narrator is a pro. Is his friend, Todd, also a Don DeLillo in the making? Nope. Todd’s a just-the-facts kind of guy. It’s the narrator who throws wild details into his arguments, making this conversational brew heady with subversive fictions. So fine, now you can tell these guys apart by their contrasting characters. Nice going, double D.

Of course you know that a duffel coat has toggles but I bet only 5% of the population could define “duffel coat” accurately in this way. Anorak? Define. Loden Coat? Parka? Define. These guys can. Defining atomic facts is part of their language contest.

The old guy being observed, in wintry weather, is not wearing gloves. If you write a superfluous detail into your story then shame on you. But this detail is telling. Why? Because it makes the old guy seem offbeat. And you don’t have to explain this detail in the end. It’s done its job already. It’s held your interest, forestalling the moment when you throw out The New Yorker.

I’m just in the first paragraphs and already “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is snowing gems of details. This is a master story.

I think if a writer has his boys walking to class then he should show the class. Why? Because not to de-energizes the narrative. You’re showing an action, walking to class. Why not show the class or do your students just walk into a blank wall somewhere past the page that you’re reading? Disagree?

There’s a break in the text and we’re in the class. When I read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, I was impressed by how AH worked details of finance into his story by making them expressions of character.

Here DD has our guys attend a philosophy class. Let me tell you, concepts from the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell saturate this text. Some Oxford dons could have a field day, if that’s what dons have, trying to look around their shoulder and grasp the escaping theory that’s running just out of sight of the reader. Atomic facts? Come on, DD! Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, battered from 5 plus readings, sits on my fucking desk.

Not that you’d notice this background, deftly introduced by depicting a class and by throwing out casual phrases, like “atomic facts”, that are really terms from mathematical logic, if you haven’t read Wittgenstein.

A beauty of this text: you don’t have to care! It’s part of what’s behind you in the room and you don’t have to turn around and notice if you don’t want to.

I could write a post about this story that’s longer than the story. I’ll stop here. Who’s the old guy? Read. You’ll find out plenty. But mostly, you’ll be satisfied with a full-course holiday meal of story.

Next time you enter a room as a guest, you may want to focus like a good autistic on the background of your party. Sensing what’s in the background is also part of writing or reading a great story.

But here’s some culinary advice, never forgot, from a philosophy professor that I had as a college freshman. At a feast, leave the table before you are full…while you are still hungry. If you’re the host, the writer, maybe you should snatch the plate away before your guest finishes the meal.

Is that what Delillo does in this story? You tell me.

-DH

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: if it’s on your Facebook profile, it’s official. So let it be known that my religion is Richard Yates.

Richard Yates was a writer who still isn’t as well known as he should be, though I’d think come Christmas this year, that’ll change in a big way. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961 and will be finally seen on the big screen with the starting lineup of Titanic actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates. Throw in Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty, and you just may have a Best Picture Oscar nominee on your hands.

I’ve been obsessed with Yates since 2001, when The New Yorker printed a short story of his, “The Canal,” which concludes with this bit of beautiful ugliness of a couple in trouble: