Drifting in Place — September’s Franklin Park Reading Series
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
1. Boxes of matches for Courtney Mauk’s book floated around the bar. Dangerous. 2. Andrew Wilder, a writer, with Isaac Eger, who freelances for the Times.
After weeks of oppressive humidity and heat, New Yorkers had a taste of fall yesterday: it was cool, breezy, and pleasant to be outside. The sudden weather shift serendipitously coincided with September’s Franklin Park Reading Series, themed around disorientation. Last night, J.E. Reich (Armchair/Shotgun), Courtney Elizabeth Mauk (Spark), Kathleen Alcott (The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets), Joshua Henkin (The World Without You), and Brian Evenson (Windeye) brought characters confronted with reality, and not exactly knowing what it was, what it meant, or what to do. Realities included a cult based in the Lower East Side, pyromaniacal siblings, parents, losing family in war, and something called “windeye.” It got weird, dudes.
1. J.E. Reich, whose innovate rave style at fiction readings is a formidable opponent to the classic somber face. 2. Laura Horley and Jane Healey, students of Joshua Henkin at the MFA in Fiction program at Brooklyn College.
The crowd settled in with booze and chit-chat as interns Francesca and Erika passed out raffle and drink tickets. Up for grabs were books by Brian Evenson and Kathleen Alcott, and t-shirts from cultural-cataloging outfit Small Demons, provided one could answer some bookish trivia. J.E. Reich kicked off the evening with a tale of a woman ripped from one reality into another: a cult in the Lower East Side. Told from the cult’s perspective, we meet Bathsheba as she transitions from one man, Yuri, to King David. Bathsheba’s decision to come back to the cult was “like Pompeii in reverse,” for she brought along a baby, one diagnosed with Tay-sachs disease. “This is me, is this me, is this me,” King David wonders before he ultimately decides to, well, put the baby down. Jesus.
1. Courtney Elizabeth Mauk: “White used to be the color of disaster.” 2. Alex Leach, who works in publishing at Neuwarth & Associates; Liz Feskoe, J.E. Reich’s girlfriend; and Emily Sperber, an architect.
Debut novelist Courtney Elizabeth Mauk gave her first reading from Spark, which chronicles the varying shades of grief cast over a family whose pyromaniacal son kills a family of four. Mauk began her reading with Andrea and her mom preparing for Delphie’s return. “‘We have to do this right. No matches, no lighters.’ ‘We?’ I say.” With Delphie returning from prison and psychiatric treatment, both Andrea and her mom are hesitant of what the future will hold, after “too many beginnings, too many ends.” Andrea’s self-blame is enticingly seductive in Mauk’s spare, fluid prose: “‘I have a lot of guilt. And you aren’t going to kiss it away. This is me, I’m made of guilt.”
1. Kathleen Alcott, that dress, and this: “For reasons he can’t supply, they were together whether for better or worse.”
The last reader before the break was Kathleen Alcott, another debut novelist. Decked out in a badass white 60s mod dress and hair, the California native launched her reading tour of The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets. “Our parents like to say the first time Jackson and I met, we concentrated our focus so intently, grew so still, that they worried our little bodies might have… neglected our duty to breathe in and out.” This memory segues into another, of how the narrator’s parents met while working at the San Francisco Chronicle. The narrator’s hesitant mother, who’d “met many men with bright smiles who tried to equalize her with nicknames,” casts their own first meeting in an unstable light. But where temperament is absent, passion is forcefully present. A drunken night at a soul-food restaurant, subsequent invite-up, and the “sowing of one last wild oat with a secretary… who called him dear,” father and mother become parents. Just as it seems the adults have ironed out the past, the narrator uppercuts with doom. “They were able to finance the small house in the small town bisected by a river of the San Francisco Bay where I would live and my mother would die.”
1. Joshua Henkin: “When they should’ve been cleaving together, they’ve been cleaved apart.”
After the break, Joshua Henkin read from his acclaimed novel The World Without You, which details the grief and resolve of the Frankel family, who are mourning the loss of their son and brother, Leo, a journalist killed in Iraq. Henkin told us the first part of the reading would drop us into an uncomfortable car ride between sisters Lily — successful in a “Princeton/Yale kind of way” — and Noelle, whose history lies in “sex, drugs and school expulsion,” but who now lives in as an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem.
It’s been a year since Leo’s death, and the family is gathering for a memorial service at their vacation home in the Berkshires. Marilyn and David go out of their way to accommodate Noelle with kosher food and dishes, but over a tense dinner, the parents break down. “‘We’re splitting up,’ Marilyn says. ‘I’m leaving Daddy.’ … ‘We lost our son, it’s ruined us.’” Henkin’s novel is classic in that Richard Yates sort of way, but not nostalgic. The Frankel family’s chasm of grief feels real thanks to Henkin’s wonderfully crafted characters and their plot-propulsive qualities.
1. Brian Evenson: “Being not alive was not like being dead. It was much, much worse.”
Brian Evenson, who teaches at Brown University, closed out the night with excerpts from his new books Immobility and Windeye. Evenson writes in several traditions, from fantasy to literary to experimental, with equal strength and compelling beauty. The stand-out reading was the title story from his collection, Windeye. Philosophical underpinnings of loss and perception aside, the quiet, sneaky narrative approach evoked a fairy tale and packed a whopping punch. The narrator’s imagined sister brings him to a mysterious space inside the house, something like a window. “‘It is important to know that a window can sometimes be a windeye.” The sister disappears into that windeye and the narrator’s mother reveals that he never had a sister, leaving him to confront the idea of death. Fast forward to his old age, “brooding on his sister,” the narrator wonders if she’ll reappear. “Chances were that he’d be stuck with the life he was living now, just as it was, until the day when he was either dead or not living himself.”
The Franklin Park Reading Series is pulling out all stops next week for the Brooklyn Book Festival. 9/19 is a special Bartlett’s Quotations-themed trivia night, and 9/20 is a reading in conjunction with ringShout. (Click here for more info.) Next month’s reading falls on the third monday, 10/15, and features A.M. Homes, Emma Straub, Marie-Helene Bertino, Scott McClanahan, and Michael Kimball. All happens at Franklin Park, all will be awesome.