Stranger Than Fiction: Joshua Ferris & François Beaune

1. Joshua Ferris and his mother, Patty Haley 2. François Beaune. 3. Un homme louche, front and center

If you’ve never been to the Sky Room of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), it’s painted many shades of blue, ordered in wide chromatic sections. After a while, it starts to feel like an aquarium, or a dream: last night, a dream in which author Joshua Ferris explained the model and virtues of Electric Literature from a writer’s perspective to an audience of his mother and me. This went on for a solid minute before I realized that, as the person holding the EL business cards, I ought to contribute to the scene instead of continuing my silent admiration of the endearing resemblance Ferris bears to his mom. I tried, but I learned that putting a valuable and still effortlessly funny sentence together can be a lost battle when you’re up against the master.

This was at the end of the evening, after Ferris and French author François Beaune’s very smart sit-down discussion of “outsider” protagonists in literature. Both men started with readings from their most recent works, Ferris’s The Unnamed and Beaune’s Un homme louche. Ferris read from the perspective of his character Tim Farnsworth, suffering from an involuntarily walking problem that leads him out of his office to places like a kebab stand and New Jersey. Beaune read — in English, which he said he prefers to do — from the notebook of his thirteen-year-old protagonist, Jean-Daniel. Only a small portion of Un homme louche (unceremoniously titled A Louche Guy in English) has been translated, but the version of Jean-Daniel Beaune revealed emerged from the pages as a more detail-oriented, less-hygenic Holden Caufield: disdainful of his surroundings, using his aversion to showers “to reveal the secrets of those around you … I needed a cover, a mask.”

1. The panel entertains a big’un (question). 2. A sign translator, who was mezmerizing and exacerbated the event’s dreamy quality.

Moderator and Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio initially steered Ferris and Beaune towards a conversation of “subrealism,” tossed around as something like a cousin of hyperrealism, affording the reader a microscopic power of perception to no unanimous end. (“Louche” carries several French meanings: one like the English of ‘disreputable,’ another closer to ‘cross-eyed’ or too close for focus.’)

When the discussion inevitably turned to the bigger questions of how translation affects meaning, what motivates outsider characters, and “Not to sound like a jackass, but is any really good book written from the perspective of an insider?” (courtesy audience member), the men did their best to keep it serious. Their shared ability to produce the right reference on demand added a few things to everyone’s ‘should re-read’ list (The Crying of Lot 49, for one, and it’s so short there are no excuses), but the blue walls were wearing us all down slowly. Except Ferris and his mom, who were of course still on point when we met, and gave the impression that they somehow always are, Sky Room or elsewhere.

–Kai Twanmoh works at a non-profit in New York City and is a recent addition to The Outlet contributing team.

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