Last night I saw a panel discussion hosted by The New Yorker and moderated by their fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, with Ben Marcus, Jennifer Egan, and Gary Shteyngart. It was called “The Far Side” and focused on the genre of science fiction. The panelists were invited because of recent works that arguably fall into the category of science-fiction: for Marcus, his recent book The Flame Alphabet, for Egan, her Twitter novel “Black Box,” and for Schteyngart, his dystopia Super Sad True Love Story.
I’ve read all three. I particularly loved Super Sad, because it is hilarious and poignant in its portrayal of a society that is all too easy to imagine becoming reality, and soon, in which we all communicate through personalized technological apparati, and where agglomerated private corporations rule the world. Egan’s Twitter novel is innovative and lovely, and I thought it was a nice follow-up to her experimentation with Power Point in her Visit From the Goon Squad.
The Flame Alphabet is artful yet occasionally painful to read. It is a graphically-portrayed story about an illness that plagues a certain sect of Jews, making their children’s speech toxic, most of all to their parents. Last night Marcus said that it is really a book about language–its limitations, its painful side effects–as well as the dangers of the “speculative, irresponsible” mystical branch of Judaism. But the book goes, I thought, much deeper than that–it is a raw portrayal of an atomized society in the extreme: an enclave of Jews who practice their faith alone, in the woods, in secret; parents who are obsessed with their only child to the point where they drive her to hate them; a town that seems to float above the rest of the country, disconnected and abstract.
Someone in the audience tried to ask Marcus and Shteyngart about Jewish themes in their work, and Shteyngart launched into a hilarious impersonation of an old, European/Russian immigrant Jew.
Here are a few other highlights from the evening:
- Ben Marcus: Doesn’t see The Flame Alphabet as necessarily “unrealistic”; “It’s not unrealistic if the emotions are real.”
- Jennifer Egan: As a writer, prefers “the place where things are totally crazy and also completely true.”
- BM: Fiction critiques “the fact of being alive”
- Gary Schteyngart: “Everything I do sucks.”
- Deborah Treisman: Explained that Egan’s story “Black Box” was fact-checked to find out whether it would be possible to have the kind of thought-recording device carried by her protagonist. (Fiction is fact-checked?!?)
- GS: Called his intern a “Mantern,” because he was so tall and beautiful.
- BM: Being a writer can be like being an anthropologist; “building a new culture.”
- GS: Said he really connected to the love story between the two main characters in 1984; basically “cribbed” that plot line and re-did the book for Super Sad.