The internet had generated so much buzz over Jami Attenberg’s newest novel, The Middlesteins, that when I suggested to a friend we should meet up there to hear her read, he scoffed that the place would be overrun and too crowded. But I still wanted to go, not just because of the internet chatter but because the book had a pretty cover.
The crowd poured in late. Typical, a WORD employee said, because it’s Brooklyn.
Everyone in the room seemed to know each other, perhaps because Attenberg is a local and occasional employee. The audience was young, at least by the standards of readings, and good looking, especially that–but I digress. Many were writers talking about their books and projects and the Random-Penguin merger. Some reluctantly admitted they too were working on a novel.
Kate Christensen, author of The Astral, introduced Attenberg. She told a story of how they met, each working on novels about men (The Great Man, The Kept Man). Both lived in North Brooklyn at the time, an era when, really, no one actually lived there. Christensen credited Attenberg with building a community of writers — before the internet, before twitter and Facebook and even before the bookstore, WORD.
Attenberg began at the beginning. She read from the first chapter of The Middlesteins in part because it required no introduction. She speaks quietly, but is animated. She clearly possesses an intimate relationship with her prose.
Attenberg’s humor is immediately apparent, both written in the prose and in her performance. She possesses the ability to offer up wry observations at just the right moment that the humorous line helps propel the narrative forward.
The book jacket and most of the promotional material includes a quote from Jonathan Franzen, and the similarities to the narratives he writes seem obvious: a family strained by middle-class crisis. Even in chapter one, the tension between family members is apparent. The main difference, it seems, is that Attenberg is funny.
Attenberg follows up the first chapter of the book by reading a short section she introduces as something she would only read in New York, a short bit about Brooklyn. The characters, amidst teaching for America, perhaps inevitably, are driven from the city by bedbugs. The last line she read for the evening was spoken by one of the girls, “New York is awesome.” Hard to disagree with that.
Following the reading, Attenberg opened up to questions, but the audience was filled with friends who apparently already knew everything about her. Attenberg did reveal that the detailed descriptions of Chinese food are mostly made up and partly inspired by a A New Yorker article about a traveling chef stalked by internet finatics. Another question started off asking her about an article she wrote for The Hairpin. Sorry, Haripin commenters, but Attenberg isn’t reading your caustic internet slams. And why should she? Internet people are the worst.