I read at KGB Bar last night. Pretty cool.
Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out, but I'm reading her 2006 selected stories for my MFA workshop at Rutgers-Newark. The story that's haunting/inspiring me right now is "The Dead," from her 1972 collection Marriages & Infidelities. About a prescription-drug-addicted novelist who writes a zeitgeisty bestseller that nets her the cover of a famous magazine, the narrative opens with Ilena contemplating pharmaceutical side effects:
Caution against hazardous occupations requiring complete mental alertness. What did that mean, "complete mental alertness"? Since the decline of her marriage, a few years ago, Ilena thought it wisest to avoid complete mental alertness. That was an overrated American virtue.
With that, the story's sardonic tone is set, and Oates never lets up over the next 32 pages of this tour de force of the form. The best passages demonstrate a total fusion of prose and point of view that spur me to achieve the same in my writing. Here's Ilena, who maintains her teaching career despite her elevated profile, after she has sex with her lover Gordon in his office:
She sprang back to her feet, assisted by this man who seemed to love her so helplessly, her face framed by his large hands, her hair smoothed, corrected by his hands. She felt only a terrible chilly happiness, an elation that made no sense. And so she would put on her coat and run across the snowy, windswept campus to teach a class in freshman composition, her skin rosy, radiant, her body soiled and reeking beneath her clothes, everything secret and very lovely. Delirious and articulate, she lived out the winter. She thought, eying her students: If they only knew....It was all very high, very nervous and close to hysteria...
I was so fully absorbed by "The Dead" that I resisted nature's call halfway through in order to reach the end without stopping. When I finished, I felt Ilena beating inside me—and I knew how to produce a similar effect in my next story.
Author Jill McCorkle read Tuesday night at Rutgers-Newark, and it was mentioned that she was once given the iconic vodka treatment. The above ad is from 1994 (per this awesome compendium), but other details seem to be scarce.
In the above videos I'm reading an excerpt from my short story "Beirut," which kicked off the spring semester of the Rutgers-Newark MFA reading series Tuesday night. (The venue was the Coffee Cave on Halsey Street, in the shadow of downtown.) The fall semester was my first, and "Beirut" is a product of my workshop with novelist and Rutgers professor Tayari Jones; this semester I'm working with MFA director Jayne Anne Phillips. It's an amazing program; I'm so grateful to be part of it.
I have the good fortune of tutoring at the Rutgers-Newark Writing Center this semester, and every student I work with is amazing. One of them, an adult student originally from Liberia, has been laboring over an essay for his English 101 class on the timeless themes of two Wislawa Szymborska poems. One is "The Century's Decline", from the great Polish poet's 1986 volume The People on the Bridge. The other is "Could Have", from her 1972 collection of the same name.
I was thinking about timelessness today while reading in a brick-walled garden along one side of Thomas Jefferson's famed Lawn at the University of Virginia, my alma mater. I'm here this weekend for Young Alumni Council meetings, and whenever I come, I seek out the gardens, which, despite restoration, largely resemble their original early-19th-century designs. For good or bad, that's what resonates with me the most when I return to the "academical village": history both "nearer" and "farther off," as Szymborska writes in "Could Have." "Listen, / how your heart pounds inside of me."
An incredible group of writers, capped by Toni Morrison, will be reading this year as part of the Writers at Newark series at Rutgers University, where I start my MFA studies in fiction September 1st.