James Franco’s Face: A Subjective Account of the New Yorker Festival

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9:30pm – George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart (Cedar Lake Theatre) “But it was a crack den; a tough scary place. I had a real 50-year-old reaction: There’s no fucking way.” – George Saunders “Blah blah blah. [Pause] Blah blah blah.” – Gary Shteyngart reading from his new novel Super Sad True Love Story. This was the reading with the highest hyperactivity level. George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart had read together on three prior occasions. Gary Shteyngart read from his new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. It was the first time he had read from it in public. His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in “a completely illiterate New York,” he said. “In other words, next Tuesday.” In the novel, people get their news from one of two sources, “The Fox” or “Ultra-Fox.”  The leading party is the “Bipartisanship Party” and there are devices called “Apparat Streams” which automatically rate a person’s attributes such as “attractiveness, intelligence, etc.” Gary Shteyngart read a scene in which the protagonist Lenny Abramov, a high school student going to one of New York’s premier public science schools, in Tribeca (Gary Shteyngart attended Stuyvesant), is taking his new Korean girlfriend Eunice home to meet his parents, to whom he is a disappointment. He has an 86.894 average, a number, he says, with which he “won’t even get into Oberlin.” Gary Shteyngart reads very fast, and thankfully took sips of his conspicuously unlabeled bottle of water. Gary Shteyngart read in the voice of two Russian parents with heavy accents. Lenny’s mother who “appeared in her usual household outfit, a white bra and panties,” says she had checked Lenny’s Apparat Stream and his “sustainability and fuckability rankings are very low.” At one point, Eunice speaks in Italian, and the father says, “Eunice, you speak such good Italian” and recounts a time they went to visit Lenny who was studying abroad. Gary Shteyngart, imitating the father imitating Lenny, stuck his arms out to his sides and quickly moved them up and down as if walking down a street. “My son in Italy,” he said, “Blah blah blah. [Pause] Blah blah blah.” George Saunders came out in a chestnut brown corduroy jacket that looked like it was chosen with the help of a woman. He wore a black tie with an abstract white, orange and red pattern. “He always wears the worst ties,” my friend said. “It’s modern,” I said. It looked like it was made of very fine silk. With his hair and the jacket, his over-all appearance was that of soft caramel. He read “Victory Lap” a story that appeared in the New Yorker about a nuclear family gone weird where everyone has their own kind of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder thing going on. George Saunders read very fast. He moved between voices with ease, from Welcome-to-the-Dollhouse ballerina girl and high-strung jock boy to plastic, placid, interchangeable mom/dad. The parents’ “perfectly reasonable system of directives designed to benefit you,” seem naturally have caused delightfully idiosyncratic OCD manifestations in their offspring, such as that of the young ballerina whose every thought and communication is interjected with ticks of a balletic variety: “Pas de chat. Pas de Chat. Changement. Changement.” And the son whose thoughts and communications, which deal mostly with cross-country running, are interjected with slurs of another kind: “I’m not quitting! Anal-cock shitbird rectum-fritz! Please, I’m begging you, it’s the only thing I’m decent at! Mom…” Q&A The questions were evenly divided between George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart or asked to both of them simultaneously. Someone asked both readers what their favorite story, of the stories they had written, was. George Saunders said his favorite of his stories was “Sea Oak.” Gary Shteyngart said he didn’t write short stories. “Well then, your favorite novel,” said the questioner. “Of the two that I’ve written?” said Gary Shteyngart. He said it was “really impossible” to write short stories despite having been raised on Chekhov as “baby food.” He tossed his head back, lowered his eye-lids and laughed. George Saunders was asked if he was ever going to write a novel. He said if he did it would probably be a short story in 45-font. Gary Shteyngart said he was taking an acting class. “That’s true,” my friend said to me. “He wants to act if this writing thing falls through.” Gary said acting has made him a worse writer. But it also made him listen to other people, which he never does. He laughed warmly. Someone asked George Saunders a question about the “moral element” of writing, and how conscious he was of that element while writing, was it something he set out specifically to do or was it simply his “own worldview.” George Saunders said his own personal questions were much like those expressed by one of the characters in “Victory Lap”: Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad? He said, “I’ve always known the answer is, ‘Yeah.'” Gary Shteyngart said that with his first book, written in his twenties, he was mostly shouting. But with his second novel, Ablurbistan [The book is Absurdistan, but Gary Shteyngart purposely, it seemed, inserted malapropisms into his speech] he was in his thirties. “It’s a melancholy time when you sit back and cry.” Gary Shteyngart said when he was little, “My grandmother paid me for my writing in little pieces of cheese, which was some affirmation that as a writer you can get protein.”

Someone asked George Saunders about the time he spent in tent city (a community of homeless people) in downtown Fresno, California for his essay “Tent City USA” for GQ Magazine. “I thought it would be hip,” George Saunders said. “But it was a crack den; a tough scary place. I had a real 50-year-old reaction. There’s no fucking way. I’ve got to find a better tent city.” He drove around Fresno for several hours looking for a better tent city. In his article he wrote, Although promising pockets of poverty were observed, no Steinbeckian tent city was found. He stayed under the underpass for a week. He said in the end, it was a “beautiful experience.”

The moderator asked Gary Shteyngart what kind of non-fiction he wrote. “I write about luxury hotels. But it was the same question: ‘Is there a better luxury hotel?'” Gary Shteyngart said this statement at one point, “Today, the number of writers and the number of readers is exactly the same…. People once had hope for the future. But now that that’s gone, we can write. And that’s what I look forward to in the next fiscal year.” Both writers were asked what they thought of the future of print. They drank from unlabeled bottles of water that were precariously close on the table. George Saunders said, “I think it will be fine. I think people will just read something.” This was a sensible answer, it seemed. Gary Shteyngart said, “You’re such an optometrist [I’m 98% sure he said optometrist]. I’m more pessimistic. The Intertubes is flashing at me…my mind is forgetting the pleasures of long-form reading.” George talked about a documentary he is involved with called “Bad Writing,” in which, he explained, the director takes poems that the director is deeply ashamed of and shows them to people and asks, “Why is that so bad?” George Saunders said he had a “Hemingway-boner” for a long time. George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart hugged.


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →