Monday, April 21, 2008

Nathaniel Rich reads at PSB

I just finished reading The Mayor's Tongue by Nathaniel Rich and am very excited he is going to be reading at the bookstore this Wednesday, April 23, at 7 pm.

The Mayor's Tongue embodies everything that is good about magic realism--the use of fantasy to reveal reality, the blurry line between the two, the constant exchange between what we should believe with our logic and what we should believe with our imagination. Rich does this without drawing so heavily on the masters of the style that the book becomes simply a New Yorkified version of a Latin American story.

The book is composed of two stories. One follows Eugene, a native New Yorker hiding from his Italian immigrant father in well, New York. He is at a complete loss about what to do with himself, friends through his job at a moving company with an immigrant named Alvaro who speaks a very rare dialect, and a devotee to the fictional author Constance Eakins. The other plot line follows Mr. Schmitz, a man wallowing in his own haplessness as he tries to manage relationships with his wife Agnes and his dashing food-critic friend Rutherford. Ultimately, both Eugene and Mr. Schmitz are compelled to go to Italy (not the Italy of Under the Tuscan Sun, mind you) on quests they don't entirely understand, where aspects of themselves and their relationships with the other main characters are twisted through various prisms until each reaches a complex form of arrival at the end of the book.

As soon I as I finished the book, I wished I had paid more attention as it was filled with the subtlety crucial to success in literary fiction. For example, it took me over 200 pages to realize that one story line was told in the past tense and one in the present. There are constant language games that begin right with the title as The Mayor's Tongue refers to both the organ and the term for language ("Mayor's Tongue" as in "native tongue"). Eugene is translating a document from a language he doesn't know and Rutherford is afflicted in such a way that he forgets English. I'm sure those who speak Italian will notice an entire range of language games in the untranslated Italian that pops up throughout the book.

There is one more success in the book that I want to mention. It can be risky for a novelist to include as a character a great writer. There are so many cliches, so many lazy images, so many false enlightenments, that it is almost impossible to create an adequate writer character, let alone a compelling one. Rich succeeds with Constance Eakins because he sculpts the character around a particular relationship people can have with great writers. The fantastic elements of the story allow Rich to present something true about our reality with great writers.

Rich is also an editor at The Paris Review and at quite a young age. He has published literary criticism quite widely so regardless of one's particular interest in The Mayor's Tongue, there are many opportunities to read what Rich has to say about literature. He also happens to come from a very literary family, father Frank Rich and brother Simon Rich!

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