Sunday, March 18, 2012

Courage and Prose: A Night with McSweeney’s at the Housing Works Bookstore Café

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Writing prose requires courage, and reading prose equips us with bravery. Three McSweeney’s authors conveyed this at “McSweeney’s Presents: Diane Williams, Ben Marcus, and Deb Olin Unferth,” held at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York, on the evening of March 12. The message is appropriate, given Housing Works’s efforts to foster a healing community for those afflicted by the dual scourges of HIV/AIDS and homelessness. Amanda Bullock, the Bookstore Café’s events director, spoke briefly about Housing Works and its mission before introducing each of the evening’s readers; the publishers, Bullock said, had donated the books being sold at the event.

At the podium: Deb Olin Unferth, Ben Marcus, and Diane Williams
Unferth, the first to take to the podium, read from her memoir Revolution (Henry Holt 2011). The bright and candid sound of Unferth’s voice amplified the sarcasm murmuring throughout her prose.  Unferth shared an excerpt from a section entitled “Good Ideas,” which related her flirtation with Christianity—a conversion spurred by her then-boyfriend, George. This riled Unferth’s Jewish family, which retaliated in kind: with devout Judaism. Exasperated at the family’s desperate affair with faith, Unferth’s sister lamented the costs of an imposed religious education: “Three days a week I had to go.  While everyone else was having fun. One day you and your God will pay.” Writing of this kind requires soul and bravery because the material is personal, but this sort of prose needs to be open enough that its inherent irony resonates. The audience’s laughter confirmed the power of Unferth’s understated irony.

Ben Marcus, the evening’s second reader, redirected the evening from soulful nonfiction toward relentless fiction. Marcus read from his novel The Flame Alphabet (Knopf 2012), set in an alternate reality where children’s toxic language literally sickens adults. The novel is a parable for how society collapses when we cannot stomach others’ attitudes, and Marcus couches this dramatic tension in Sam and Claire’s struggles with their daughter Esther. But Marcus is not without sensitivity: Sam and Claire yearn to communicate with Esther, to celebrate her birthday and express their love with such endearments as “Sweetie”—even if Esther retaliates that such an appellation is “a word used for pets” and is like her parents “throwing up on” her. What Marcus generates, here, is the reciprocal danger of language: Words can poison, and a response can further toxify a relationship. But this novel is courageous in its adamant belief that we must try to communicate, to find a cure for sickening rhetoric.

Ironically, only words can grant that solace. Diane Williams, the last of the evening’s three readers, took to the podium and read selections from her new collection of flash fictions, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty (McSweeney’s 2012). She prefaced her reading by noting that she finds courage in short stories.  Williams demonstrated that short stories do embolden us against the catastrophes of daily life through the pieces “The Emporium,” “On the Job,” “Arm under the Soil,” “Enormously Pleased,” and “Lord of the Face.” “On the Job,” for instance, transforms a man’s decision to buy a belt buckle into an instructive moment through an extended horseracing metaphor. The protagonist resembles “a man whose leader has failed him time after time,” who simply wants to find a way back into the race of life, so he buys a snazzy belt buckle and goes home to his wife. The man needs this woman and her support—he is like “a horse that could not ever get out of its neck-high stall on its own”—and yet he cannot make himself sincere with his wife. The stories in Vicky Swanky revel in this kind of deceptive simplicity: plots that appear linear, brief encounters, chance observations, a looming image or metaphor. Yet, Williams manages to contrive a hinge in each of these stories, images like the belt buckle in “On the Job,” which open the pieces to reveal how Williams’s characters survive in this world.

Prose, no matter how simple or straightforward it seems at first, requires writers with bravery and soul enough to address the ironies of daily life. Because of this, however, writing at its best rewards readers by supplying them with courage, with the knowledge of how to face an increasingly complex world.