14 December 2008

Line by line at State By State

Disturbingly empty when I arrived, the rounded dome of the Tishman Auditorium filled up Friday night for the State By State reading at the New School. The crowd appeared to be mostly students; a woman behind me was showing off her copy of Toni Morrison's A MERCY to a friend, who had assumed it was a class assignment; next to me, an older man read the AV Club (but the music section).

Emcee Sean Wilsey, a co-editor of the anthology, read about a road trip he took from Marfa, Texas to Washington D.C. after introducing the panel of readers, which included contributors Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Vowell and Ellory Washington, as well as Peter K. Hirsch (Peabody winner and writer of many episodes of "Arthur"), Parker Posey and Maria Tucci. The text for the night was Franzen's essay on New York, which came in the form of a play about a writer, a seemingly autobiographical version of Franzen himself, who is waiting to interview the state of New York. (You can read an edited version here.) Posey played the inexhaustible publicist, Hirsch a "question vetter" who appears to be confused that not all New York writers live in Brooklyn; Vowell, playing a historian far drier than anything she's ever written, bored him to tears, but Washington as a geologist was a great listened to Franzen's tale of his first marriage and the irrevocable role New York played in it. When he finally gets to New York, played by Tucci as an endlessly wise round-heeled woman, the writer is possessed by getting him to remember her; she only raises her eyebrows and asks, "Is this really how you want us to spend out 10 minutes?"

When I thought about it, it was the perfect selection for the evening, because it got all these writers and actors interacting instead of a more typical static reading. Posey guffawed and covered her eyes at points during Wilsey's talk; Tucci beamed at the crowd when he told everyone she had never been asked to play New York before. As a ticketholder, I was even more pleased when it was announced that the event was a benefit, for Franzen's endangered-species conglomerate Air Land Sea and the nonprofit writing center 826 NYC (of which Vowell is the board president). "I am uncomfortable speaking in an advocating way" is how Franzen, who looked grayer than his CORRECTIONS days and even bashful at the mike, prefaced his pitch.


Wade Garrett said...

I thought that Franzen looked rather dashing in his photograph on the dust jacket of The Corrections. He's one of those writers - like David Foster Wallace and Michael Chabon - who is actually much older than everybody thinks he is because his writing is so hip and has such broad appeal among generation X and Yers.

Ellen said...

Well, I don't think it hurts his reputation any to be thought of as younger than he is. If I had had to guess I would have assumed he was just a little bit older than Jonathan Safran Foer and a little younger than Dave Eggers... when in fact Franzen is almost 10 years older than Eggers, another writer who seems much younger than he is.

I just have this indelible imprint in my mind of Franzen from the CORRECTIONS days, the headshot they would run with every single article about the kerfuffle. But of course, that was seven years ago. Well, now I know how to spot him when I'm out on the town.

Wade Garrett said...

Kerfuffle is a word that needs to be used more often.