Friday, May 16, 2008

Andrew Sean Greer "The Story of a Marriage"

Despite an unexpected and forbidding heat, some 30 diehard fans overcame their malaise to hear Andrew Sean Greer read from his new novel, "The Story of a Marriage". The author himself was convinced that people would "bag" his event to leisurely sip wine in the shade at impromptu picnics. So, Kepler's supporters, the store and Andrew thank you!

After an introduction by Kepler's bookseller nonpareil, Nancy Salmon, the linen-clad Andrew struck a near instant rapport with his audience: he longingly recalled an evening some eight years ago when a handful of curious (prescient?) people turned out at Kepler's for his first ever author event, a reading for his elegant 2000 short story collection "How It Was for Me". Hopefully, the author of the best-selling "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" is enjoying "how it is for me" now.

At its core, "The Story of a Marriage" poses a question: how can we ever truly know another person? Andrew mentioned that due to numerous plot twists and a key revelation early in the novel, he's encountered difficulty discussing the book in interviews. Nonetheless, he chose to read a dramatic passage fully 2/3 of the way in: an episode in which the struggling marrieds take the Larkspur Ferry one summer evening to a dance in Marin. Sharing a cab home with another man, the wife, Pearlie Cook, after misreading her fellow passenger, is unnerved by his sudden, unexpected overtures.

Before Q&A, Andrew spoke of relocating from urban NYC to the University of Montana to earn his MFA under the tutelage of esteemed writer William Kittredge ("Hole in the Sky: a Memoir"). While some students wrote stories in a tone of ironic machismo reflecting the region's rugged terrain, Andrew composed more emotional stories borne of his youthful experiences. He felt somewhat redeemed when Mr. Kittredge - himself a rather "gruff" guy - admonished his students that if they don't risk bumping up against the edge of sentimentality, then they "just don't get it." When asked why he doesn't write with that "irony" so common among his contemporaries, Andrew's answer is a resignedly honest "I just can't" (with any conviction).

The first query of Q&A was the simple "Why 1953?" Andrew found this particular era - known for its Cold War paranoia, simmering suburban angst, and suppression of certain social groups (women, blacks, gays) - the perfect milieu for his story of an exceptionally frustrating marriage scarred by deception. To understand the cultural texture and nuances of 1950's San Francisco, Andrew tapped the microfiche* archives at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library (the one with the cavernous, three-story high, architecturally exquisite reading room - ok, so I'm a Cal alum). After pouring over daily editions of the SF Chronicle (from which he created a nifty binder w/table of contents - "hey, anything but write, right?"), he fixated on 1953 after being captivated by certain of the year's details: the national ambivalence toward the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; President Eisenhower's call for citizens to burn their copies of Marx and Engels' "Das Kapital"; the surprisingly pronounced prejudice against Chinese immigrants in a not yet progressive San Francisco.

*Those of us of a certain pre - "point-and-click" era, when research was a labor intensive affair requiring travel, will surely recall scrolling, scanning, and finally, while squeezed in some cramped, subterranean carrel, no less, staring fixedly at those 10X magnified, oddly distorted, backlit sheets of microfiche, those modern equivalents of the illuminated manuscript, hoping to locate - at a nickel a pop anything worth printing out! The comparatively loud machine even involved - I think - a hand crank of sorts.)

Andrew also told of discovering - while researching "Max Tivoli" - an authentic diary of an 1880's male adolescent; a rather "dull" read until the author realized that the sporadic gibberish - cryptically followed by a series of numerals - was in fact the naughty teenager's code for certain girls' identities (as listed in the "glossary") and the corresponding number of 'ol bases he'd been to with them (Victorianism be damned). This decoding made for a quite vivid re-reading.

In a another interesting aside, Andrew admitted to stealing the last sentence from a classic Jane Austen novel to end "The Story of a Marriage". (Forgive me, but I can't recall the Austen title, or, frankly, if it was indeed Austen). This literary maneuver was part of some sort of bet Andrew had with fellow writer and Jane Austen fan, Julie Orringer ("How to Breathe Underwater"*) who had always wanted to do the same. (I guess Andrew beat her to the punch.)

*a terrific collection that I highly recommend; the book's final story "Stations of the Cross" kind'a blew me away. Plus, you just have to love the catty title of another - "When She is Old and I am Famous".

Andrew mentioned that he is currently at work on a novel. All in all, the evening was an enjoyable "reunion" for bookstore and author alike.~~Terry Meagher


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