Wednesday, December 15, 2010

20 (Writers) Under 40 (Years) in 80 (Minutes): Authors selected as The New Yorker’s best 20 UNDER 40 speak at the 92Y Tribeca

It’s always satisfying to put a name to face, and even more so to put a voice to a face. Deborah Treisman is the Fiction Editor of The New Yorker magazine, and interviews writers and holds consistently eloquent discussions about writing on her weekly podcasts. Today she is stylish in a grey dress and shiny red leather boots that I now want (I’m a sucker for red). Thank you all for coming in spite of the cold, she greets us, “I probably wouldn’t have made it out.”

But she is clearly happy to be here and glows like a proud parent about the provocatively ambitious list of authors she and fellow editors conceived, whose gestation period involved expansions (so many authors to consider!) and contractions (so little time!), and which eventually birthed a brilliant collection of stories. It was “exhausting and thrilling,” she says, and she’s overjoyed at the result, to have all the stories “united” in one issue. She is standing at the podium on stage with a hemisphere of empty chairs behind her. “These aren’t for Chinese dissidents,” she cracks, but for the writers to occupy after their readings, when the audience can ask questions. Without further ado, the writers begin.

First up is David Bezmozgis: tall, dark-framed glasses, tame in a sweater and collared shirt. Treisman describes his writing—primarily about immigration, culture shock and identity— as “politically savvy and emotionally deft.” Bizmousis reads a section of THE TRAIN OF THEIR DEPARTURE, dealing with a romance between a male and female protagonist. The thorn here is a pregnancy and a perplexed is-he-or-isn’t-he father, who thinks of babies as being “the size and vascular transparence of a gooseberry,” floating around in the “red convection of the womb.” The weary maybe-maybe-not father reflects that “life, which he treated as a pastime, which he thought he could outdistance, had caught up with him.”

Second is Nell Freudenberger, praised in an article following her first book as being “too young, too pretty and successful.” With a bashful smile and a calm monotone she reads from her story AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE, which came to her after a chance conversation with a stranger on a Jet Blue flight, an involved email correspondence, and an internal compass directing her towards a plot. Amina is soon to be married to George who she met and is getting to know over email. When she first sees a photo of him she observes his “large uncolonized expanses of cheek, nose and chin,” which she later decides she can love. Her parents debate hiring a rickshaw to bring the visiting fiancé from the main road to their house, about 200 ft of unpaved path away, but decide that such a gesture would be “more of a spectacle than it was worth,” and I am struck by what the ‘spectacle’ of an arranged marriage conveys to readers both familiar and foreign to the concept. Amina wonders what George looks like and her mother—who met and married Amina’s father of her own accord, via a ‘love marriage’—placidly reassures her that he looks the same as he does in his photo: “nothing is wrong,” and I wonder if it's ironic or intended that I think of the prevailing American sentiment that we are innocent until proven guilty. Before Amina moves to Washington, DC to be with her fiancé, her mother exacts a promise from her not to do “that” before they are officially married. Amina is emboldened by the intimacy of proximity and inevitable propinquity, and breaks her promise to her mother. While she does not like his facial expressions while he’s on top of her—“as if he were in pain somewhere very far away”—she has no regrets the next morning, a significant marker of who she is and who she is becoming.

Third is Rivka Galchen who, Treisman says, draws from a “closet of curiosities” and a “grab bag of interests,” a sort of “Thomas Pinchen meets Kafka meets Oliver Sacks” for the scientific, technical and colloquial happenings she writes about. Galchen reads from THE ENTIRE NORTHERN SIDE WAS COVERED WITH FIRE that begins with a bit about the dearth of readers these days being a “felicitous injustice.” Galchen is expressive and performs her story with expression, comedic hesitations and flawless timing. Her hair is tied in a ponytail that looks like it was an afterthought, but is actually skillfully done, much like her writing, which reads like a casual conversation because of how finely it is crafted. The main character, Trisha, is in the middle of being pregnant, left by her husband, lectured by her brother and tempted by filmmakers, and Galchen manages to bring into context romances between land animals, Parmesan cheese graters without the “unappealing ‘comfort’ grips” and money being “also very winged.” She is hilarious and poignant!

Fourth is Karen Russell, the shortest and most cherubic of the bunch. She writes about things that are “both singular and universal,” Treisman tells us, and whose “cultural references are sweeping.” Russell sweetly thanks Treisman. “It’s great to be here with this rad team,” she says, drawing a chuckle from the audience. Her story is THE DREDGEMAN’S REVELATION and the main character is someone who works on a dredge for so many hours a day that “lately he preferred to think of himself as a profession.” Russell’s voice is soft and airy, musical and sounds practiced; I could listen to her read for a long time. She smiles when her main character starts reminiscing and “trying like the other guys to turn his life into theater.” She boldly uses Southern and Turkish accents for other characters, making us laugh again. After a traumatizing delivery that leaves a baby near-dead and its mother dead (prompting its adoptive father to later repeat like a chant, “you were born dead,”) the audience is as grateful as Russell that the baby chose life: that “windy interval between birth and death.

Fifth is the one author I recognize because of his distinctively receding hairline, dark hair and perpetual boyish grin on his face. Gary Shteyngart manages to be “hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time,” per Treisman, and effortlessly applies his “well developed satirical skills” in his writing. His 3-line biography includes the sentence, “Gary Shteyngart lives in his own head” and Treisman invites us to visit it with her. His opening line to the audience is, “I can’t believe I’m not 40 yet! I feel like I’m 80! Jeez!” with mock truculence. He reads from SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY which is set in the future and where everyone’s quirks are magnified. There’s the group of scientists that is “trying to find a cure for death,”—Shteyngart starts laughing, heh heh heh—“not going so well.” There’s the protagonist’s mother who welcomes him home with “some Russian garbles of amazement” and uses her “post retirement English” when addressing his non-Russian, non-Jewish (the latter a reason to disapprove) girlfriend. Shteyngart mimics with his hand the action of the mother running her hands through her son’s hair and describes how she quickly covers the couch before her son sits on it, since he’s wearing “compromised Manhattan outerwear.” There’s the father who, when he hugs his son, leaves behind some of the “grey carpet of hair that my father wore with a touch of class.” When he pulls his son into the living room for a father-to-son talk, they discuss “all the monetary things that kept us fearful and connected.” Shteyngart hops nimbly between the narrator’s American accent, his girlfriend’s question-mark-at-the-end-of-every-sentence American accent and his parents’ eager, affectionate, thick Russian accents. The novel may be super sad, but this bit is pretty damn funny.

Sixth is the author with the coolest name: Wells Tower (who names their kid Wells?). Treisman says of Tower that he captures the “panoramic cavalcade of American life” and has a “cinematic eye for the details that both stab and tickle.” Tower reads smoothly from THE LANDLORD about a real estate “investor guy” going through some “stuff” whose 31-year old daughter, Rhoda, creator of uniquely incomprehensible yet message-driven art, moves in with him unannounced, and continues to stump him with her work. “Her field is bummers,” the father tells us, since Rhoda makes “leukemia-cluster art, floating-yuan art, water-rights art, and mental-health-funding-cuts art,” among others. When Rhoda speaks, Towers impressively executes her waterfall of dissent, disdain and disgruntlement with rapid-fire diatribes about the recession and her ex-boyfriend and her father’s porn collection and that creature from the ‘Black Lagoon’ movie they saw together when she was 8. Her father convinces her to go out for dinner one night, and drives her through the scenic routehow about a sunset for message-driven art made more beautiful by Towers’ light, rhythmic alliteration: in the “late light” of sunset, “each blade [of grass] looks hand-tinted;” sneezeweeds “dot the ditches” and are “woozy with the weight” of their heads. Writer Gary Lutz, known for his essay The Sentence is a Lonely Place, would be proud. Rhoda complains of a “massive Old Testament magnitude of guilt” from her childhood, and confirms that being exposed to “a walking compound genital” in ‘Black Lagoon’ didn’t help. What would? Seeing “a Pegasus fucking a unicorn. Good to know!

After being read to about porn, arranged marriage, cheese graters, Turkish doctors and abortions, we are primed to ask the writers questions. They arrange themselves on the stage and finger their microphones with varying levels of awkwardness and habit.

Books versus electronic media? Shteyngart responds that reading a book means “completely shutting myself off, which you can’t do with an electronic device.” Booya.

How should an audience member write her autobiography? Russell offers friendly advice: “act like a tennis shoe” (and just do it!).

How do these writers deal with rejection, and what does it mean to have been elected to this prestigious list? Bezmozgis responds: “the nature of the job is rejection, it continues,” and urges people to keep at their work regardless of how tiring or obstacled it seems.

Do any of them teach writing or English classes, and why? Russell enthuses about how fun it is to “get to read closely” other people’s work, especially younger people who are “free.” “You have to wear pants in a room; that’s always good,” she adds. Hmm...

Do they find themselves being more subversive than usual in their stories, to pack a stronger punch? Towers says, “I vent a lot of bile and sorrow on the state of American politics” in non-fiction magazine pieces, but fiction is a space “where I can intrigue myself” and explore the “more fundamental artifacts of human emotion.”

A question to Treisman reveals that this same list from 11 years ago recognized 15 men and 5 women, and this year has yielded 10 of each. Hurrah!

How can first-time writers find their voice? Shteyngart says that reading aloud helps activate the “bullshit meter.” “There’s kind of a shame to reading in front of the mirror, but it’s helpful…do it naked if you have to.”

Sounds like a plan. Although, maybe I’ll keep those tennis shoes on.

PostScript: I haven't read any of these stories in full yet, but based on what I heard tonight, here's how I'd rank them:

1. Towers

2. Galchen

3. Russell

4. Shteyngart

5. Freudenberger

6. Bezmozgis



  1. Terrific account, Aditi. I've read a couple of Nell Freudenberger's stories (one about an SAT tutor in Bombay, and this one you've written about) and I must say she has an excellent insight into the mindset of people from our part of the world. Just 2 days back, I heard a program on NPR with Deborah Treisman, along with David and Karen, so it was nice to tie that up with what you've written. Did anybody ask them their opinion of writing programs?
    And one day, Aditi, I hope you will be on that list as well!

  2. And oh - I forgot to mention- I LOVED your parent-and-birthing analogy!

  3. Thanks, auntie, you're too kind. Good for Freudenberger; Lahiri could learn a thing or two from her, perhaps ;)
    No one asked about writing programs, but went the more selfish route: "do you have tips for first-time writers / writing an autobiography?" and the writers blankly stared back and said, "um...write?"
    One day, auntie, one day!