by Matt Waters
Mitch Levenberg read first, and the author shared a story about delusion. Featuring a desperate protagonist obsessed with a bank teller who ultimately may not even exist, his tale, called ‘Ellipses,’ fits within this literary gathering’s selected theme, that being ‘March Madness.’
The other works featured this evening will also concern characters driven toward unknown currencies. Intimacy issues, aging, death, sickness, and love decayed permeate through the spoken pages. But it is to the great credit of each participating author that the darkness discussed never seems inescapable. The besieged characters burst with humanity. And even if the gravest inconveniences of reality could not be overcome, in their assessment resided a small victory.
The event is called ‘Fiction Addiction.’ It takes place on the final Tuesday of every month, at a bar called 2A. 2A is located on the southwest corner of second street and avenue A, and proud alumni of the space cadet program* may find it quite serendipitous that a bar with this name would be located at that exact location.
The establishment has two floors, and the readings take place on the upper-level. There is a wide space in the front of the room, allowing for a pulpit and microphone stand, from where the literature mingles with spoken word. In addition there’s a sizable couch, which appears quite comfortable. That is prime positioning. Late arrivers may be relegated to the back, but it’s far from a raw deal. There’s a fully equipped bar, a decent number of stools, and the readings come through crystal clear acoustically, no matter where one ultimately lands. The space can be described as cozy, without being crowded. On a scale from one to general admission at terminal five**, with the latter representing an assault on the lounging soul, the comfort level is satisfying.
So, settled, and perhaps with a beer in hand, the true purpose of the evening may be explored. And that is, of course, to hear words forming narratives, and narratives becoming relatable, delivered by inspiring people. Talented young writer Christine Vines coordinates and publicizes this event, introducing the authors throughout the night.
Relating to characters is not necessarily the most important task for a reader, or in this case, a listener. Being affected by their thoughts and actions is paramount, though if one looks deep within, even when weighing the actions of deranged, fictional people, we can identify our own delusions.
What often makes characters interesting is their refusal to reassess a plan. We can understand an initial thought, even a few false moves. But when a character sinks into a broth of their own derangement, the result, if delivered effectively, is engaging, as if witnessing a single car accident occur in slow motion, the details painstakingly analyzed and filed into plain manila folders for a later date.
In a strange way, feeling superior to a character could help us tap into certain personal attitudes that we may not be particularly conscious about, most of the time. That is quality fiction.
And this what the aforementioned ‘Ellipses’ does so effectively. We can all relate to having a crush, or at least a fleeting thought about someone, a possible relationship for instance, which is so obviously unrealistic that it is dismissed almost immediately by our thought processes. Unfortunately for the protagonist in ‘Ellipses,’ all of his processes lead him further into a tunnel, where the light is teller number seven at the local bank, and their future together destined. The endearing aspect about this protagonist, and the way Levenberg presented this story, is that the character did not fit into stereotypical obsessive molds. At the climax, when his quest has proved futile, future revealed bleak, the character spirals into a demented type of realization, that he prefers the fantasy, to a reality where his only companionship is a goldfish. Before this fitting dénouement, however, Levenberg’s character thirsts for contact so basic that there was essentially never a chance for him to be disappointed by anything the teller did, or even did not do. Cognitive dissonance certainly applies, yet the effects of lowered expectations are undeniable. We see a character accepting meaninglessness. The ironic tragedy is that he applies meaning to a ‘relationship’ that truly was meaningless, in every literal sense of the word, instead of trying to get help or reconnecting with family.
Madness, though, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When it becomes apparent that the bank teller was not real, the protagonist becomes unable to handle reality. The character had spent hours decoding a letter he believed from the teller, regarding his account, yet supposedly saying so much more, between the ellipses. The conclusion is brutal, yet honest, and the style in which the story was written invites the reader to eavesdrop on this troubled mind, not become tricked or even surprised by it.
Ann Napolitano shared some personal history before reading an excerpt of her novel ‘A Good Hard Look.’ She had been working diligently on a book about Melvin Whiteson, a wealthy character seeking self-discovery within a period specific New York City social scene. On his quest, Melvin finds only continued disillusionment.
The rudderless nature of Melvin was affecting the overall narrative structure of the project. Napolitano was experiencing difficulty really digging into the story. Approaching a critical point where the project may have had to be abandoned, she suddenly received the inspiration to include one of her literary heroes, Flannery O’Connor, in the narrative. Melvin would finally find a purpose, in this new story, where he and Flannery cross paths in Milledgeville, Georgia, her hometown. Flannery had been diagnosed with lupus, forced to return back to family farm, after achieving literary fame in New York.
Napolitano had a personal stake in this story for a variety of reasons. She had read O’Connor while getting her English degree. At the time Napolitano was fighting an illness that would take her multiple years to overcome. She related to O’Connor’s brave battle against lupus. In the face of death, O’Connor had chosen to chase greatness. Her life choices spiritually stirred Napolitano, and helped shape her into a novelist. Even still, Napolitano had never imagined that she would include O’Connor in a novel. She worked doubly hard on the project after this decision, and the book has received rave reviews. (Four and a half stars from consumers on Amazon.com, for instance)
In the excerpt she read, there was a particularly touching sequence where Melvin, the New Yorker, becomes stone-frozen fascinated upon his first sight of a peacock. In fact, he looks, ‘scared and disoriented.’ It was memorable imagery, and a reflection on all the different emotions that beauty can make one feel. How different people will react to something beautiful in different ways, nobody right or wrong. Their consciousness of the beauty matters more. That could be one of the drives behind ‘A Good Hard Look.’
http://annnapolitano.com/ (pssst. That site is awesome)
Paul Lisicky read three bubbling short stories that are part of a collection. The language that Lisicky employs while writing is quite interesting. It veers on the poetic, focusing on specific sights and sounds, as if the physicality of objects and settings possess some type of unified rhythm under the surface. The language is free flowing.
The first story was ‘Bulldog.’ The interior machinations of a loyal pet are examined. The bulldog is much smarter than he appears. He knows, with dire specificity, what his owner needs. The most fascinating lines involved a process the bulldog had mastered, whereupon he purified his owner, as she slept. The bulldog is much smarter than he appears, and he prefers it that way. His intelligence may stem from living completely, and totally, in the moment, which we as human beings struggle so mightily to do. The bulldog eventually leaves the owner through a crack of light. It could be interpreted that he has given up on the owner, choosing independence instead. Perhaps though, this bulldog, and all dogs, are so brilliant because they are aware of their freedom, and live for the glory in seconds that we casually dismiss. So, he does not need to leave the owner to be free, which could be why dogs do not leave us. He is free, already, and is such a good friend because he attempts sharing that freedom, instead of possessing it.
The second story, ‘Winston and the Ocean,’ was touching as well, because it served as a reminder about love. We actively complicate ourselves. The most important thing, however, usually stays the same, inside of us, through all of our lives. Love does not change its schedule; it does not seek escape through medication, over the counter or otherwise. Love is pure. It is the truest side of us. When we lose touch with that love inside, life becomes muddled and almost impossible to navigate without making serious errors in judgment. ‘Winston and the Ocean’ detailed the protagonist’s close connection with the water. He is a body-boarder, who genuinely loved the sea, ever since it had been his escape from a troublesome childhood. Winston finds his appreciation for the sea waning. After taking drugs, in an attempt to reconnect with his childhood, Winston instead is throttled by waves he probably could ride with ease, if sober. He drinks the saltwater. All the while, he is searching for the child he used to be, and the mother who didn’t give him all the love he deserved. It was a moving story, told kaleidoscopically, through a melding of the present and past.
Lisicky’s third story packed a similar punch. It also dealt directly with reality. ‘The protagonist in ‘The Visitors’ is Sr. Barbara. A progressive nun, to the point where she slipped condoms into the hands of passing-by sophomores on campus, the story begins as she confronts the cruel specter of death. In a manner befitting her iconoclastic viewpoints, the supposed pleasantries of dying, being surrounded by lifelong friends, for instance, are greeted with derision. For all her kindness, Sr. Barbara sees herself as replaceable upon her death, just another brick. The wonder of the story arrives when Sr. Barbara, upon reflecting, begins to see beauty, even in this seemingly desolate viewpoint. If beauty could be found in a dump truck emptying it’s contents, one of many powerful images in the story, then surely it could be found within her own life, and friends, and experiences. And anger, too.
Meg Wolitzer read an excerpt from her book, ‘The Uncoupling.’ The focus of these passages involved Dory and Robby, two long married English teachers, who to this point had enjoyed a happy marriage, marked by passion. However, Dory is not immune to a spell sweeping over her New Jersey town, wherein women lose passion for being intimate with the men in their lives. A particularly hilarious section of this reading involved the two playing a sex suggestion game, the difficulties of maintaining an attraction to one partner for a significant (and sometimes endless) period of time underlining the witty observations and humor. Robby eventually buys a product called ‘the comfy,’ a bathrobe for two. This purchase represents an admission that the couple can no longer produce the emotional comfort they had previously attained with unconscious ease, before the spell touched their lives. In order not to leave the audience on a totally down note, Wolitzer closed with a happier passage from later in the book, where Robby and Dory are in a position to watch the comfy burn – but can’t. It’s nonflammable.
(For more on the culture scene in New York, stop by this blog in the coming weeks and months)
*I got my degree in 1987.
**Another article for another day