Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thursday Night at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble: Nathaniel Rich

This post is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Thursday, April 24, 2008:

Thursday Night at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble: Nathaniel Rich

Ordinarily on Thursday evening I would not be at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble that opened fairly recently but around the corner at Borough of Manhattan Community College, teaching English 201. But we're on spring break this week and the weather is almost summerlike, so I was able to get out and see Nathaniel Rich, whose new novel The Mayor's Tongue is pretty much the talk of the town. I've admired Nathaniel's essays and criticism and was looking forward to reading his novel even before tonight.

(I'm sure by now everyone knows that his father is the New York Times's best columnist, Frank Rich. His younger brother Simon, author of the very funny book Ant Farm -- my octogenarian father recommends it highly -- was also there last night; I recognized Simon from when he came up to me at KGB last May at a reading I did along with Tao Lin and others and not only said nice things about my writing but actually bought one of my books.)

After being introduced by the Barnes & Noble coordinator as an editor of the Paris Review and contributor to the New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, etc. as well as the recipient of killer blurbs from Stephen King and Gary Shteyngart for his novel, Nathaniel came out to a crowd of close to a hundred shortly after 7 p.m. (I got one of the last of the B&N folding chairs in the back row before it became standing room only.)

Slightly diffident, endearingly nerdy (dressed, I'm pretty sure, in the goofy red shirt in the Polaroid above) but extremely poised, Nathaniel began by saying that his novel was not autobiographical but that a couple of things in it were inspired by events in his life.

One of those was a summer he spent in Milan working for a publishing company and living with an editor there (sleeping in a fold-out chair in the guy's kitchen) who wanted Nathaniel around to practice his English. As a result, Nathaniel said, his passable Italian never became excellent and his own English deteriorated after weeks of talking a simplified pidgin.

He then read from the prologue of the novel, told in the third person, about Eugene Brentani, working as a mover at Aaronson & Sons in Manhattan, who moves in with a Dominican fellow mover, Alvaro, in an Inwood apartment he keeps apart from his wife and family in order to have a place to have sex with various girlfriends and prostitutes.

Alvaro speaks a little-known dialect called CibaeƱo that even other Dominicans can't really understand. When he and Eugene -- who seems to be hiding out from what I assume is a more privileged family -- begin hanging out in a secret room at the local public library, Alvaro writes in a scribbled longhand a novel that he finally asks Eugene to translate. Eugene can barely understand Alvaro's speech, and that only because of Alvaro's expressive gestures, so how he can he translate a novel in an almost illegible scrawl in a dialect he barely can comprehend? But somehow he does it.

I'm not quite doing justice to the complexity and elegance of Nathaniel Rich's prose here. The language is precise and measured, the metaphors fresh, and it's not the show-offy prose you might expect from someone the press has sometimes categorized as a hot young literary wunderkind. It doesn't really sound like a first novel at all, it has so much authority. Just as Eugene suspects that Alvaro is a beautiful writer without really understanding everything he is putting down on paper, it seems like Rich is writing a novel about the possibilities of fiction and the struggle to articulate a vision using the very fragile medium of words.

There weren't very many questions after Nathaniel finished reading -- he offered to ask himself questions and answer them -- but a man who's reading the novel asked him if the storyline involving Eugene ever converges with the other major storyline involving an elderly man named Mr. Schmitz. Nathaniel said he wasn't giving away anything to say no, that putting the two strands of the narrative together in an artificial way at the end would have been artificial.

Another questioner asked if Nathaniel was influenced by his work on his book San Francisco Noir. The author said perhaps a bit, since he was watching two noir films a day during part of the time he was working on The Mayor's Tongue.

In response to another question, Nathaniel said he mostly "sneaked in" moments of free time to write the novel, taking five years and working on it only in a sustained, all-encompassing way for six months. He felt the time it took gave him the ability to make sure at the end that it was a consistent narrative.

After the last question, the B&N coordinator gave us the usual bookstore chain fire-drill rules for getting copies autographed -- it's always one row at a time. I've ordered the book elsewhere so I slipped out, very much impressed with this writer's thoughtfulness about the nature of fiction. I'm looking forward to reading The Mayor's Tongue.

No comments: