PEN World Voices: New Fiction and Apartment Envy in Westbeth

05/02/2011 2:30 PM |

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The PEN World Voices Festival concluded over the weekend; see our previous coverage here and here.

Just after work and just before sunset, the “Literary Safari,” that took place at the Westbeth Center for the Arts’ romantically crumbling apartment complex just off the Hudson River in the West Village, combined two of New Yorkers’ most beloved pasttimes: attending exclusive cultural events and envying the well-appointed, divinely located apartments of our betters. The Safari promised a “unique experience,” and so it was. For two hours, guests were invited to “wander the hallways” of Westbeth, attending readings by 20 international authors in the homes of Westbeth residents.

For those unfamiliar with the community, Westbeth (which is, to this day, managed by a non-profit orgnaization)—is located in a former Bell Laboratories complex which were converted, in the late 60s, into 383 studio apartments by architect Richard Meier. The community first opened to residents in 1971, promising affordable housing for low and middle income artists of all stripes. (Don’t get excited—Westbeth stopped even waitlisting prospective residents in 2009 “due to the length of time applicants now spend on the list.”) The complex is 13 stories tall, and all of the studios, whose eccentric and whimsical floor plans vary considerably, are centered around a large central atrium. The hallways themselves give the building a sort of art-school dorm feel: many of the doors are painted or decorated by the owners, and each one features a different color triangle, oriented in various directions and suggesting some sort of cryptic code or affiliation. Idiosyncrasies in the layout render it impossible (on certain floors) to walk from the western end of the building to the eastern end, making navigation in the twisting, labyrinthine hallways feel not unlike stepping through the looking-glass.

The Safari was scheduled so that if everything ran precisely on time (which it didn’t) and you knew exactly where you were going (which we didn’t), one could attend four different readings and Q&As during the course of the night. Our first stop was in an elegant studio with breath-taking (and possibly a bit too distracting) views of the Hudson. Lynne Tillman, a novelist and short story writer who has been active in the downtown New York literary scene and has written extensively about—and in response to—the lives and work of contemporary artists (such as Andy Warhol and Kiki Smith), perched comfortably in an overstuffed armchair within a knee’s reach from her audience. She read a story from her newest collection, Some Day This Will Be Funny.

Before starting, Tillman encouraged any authors present to become writer-members of PEN: you need “just one book,” to join, she said, “and you don’t need to be invited.” Her reading was expressive, but restrained, punctuated by the late arrival of a guest who shuffled in as she was narrating, “anything might happen.” As the man tried to settle in unobtrusively, Tillman looked up and said, without irritation, “[t]hat’s a good time for you to sit down.”

After the reading, she cheerfully fielded inquiries about what it actually means to be a ‘Writer-in-Residence’ (“nothing much”) and how she makes the decision of when to introduce a character’s first name, particularly when the story is told in the first person. (“It’s a question of preciosity,” she mused, before explaining in depth considerations of interiority and the importance of “shifting” a reader’s expectations.)

The Q&A ran long, and we shuffled into the hallway a few minutes after the next reading was scheduled to begin. Urged on by a fellow guest whose whole purpose of attending was, understandably, “to see as many apartments as possible,” we wended our way through corridors, getting lost only once before finding ourselves—a bit late—in front of the apartment where Norwegian poet and editor Gunnhild Øyehaug was scheduled to be reading. The door, unfortunately, was locked.

Thrown off by this unexpected wrinkle, but not wanting to miss two readings in a row, we elected to head a few floors down to the reading of Marcelo Figueras, an Argentinian journalist, screenwriter, and novelist whose English-language debut, Kamchatka, will be released next month. The host’s apartment opened onto a seemingly interminable, L-shaped hallway, but after being cordially shown in by the host and her inquisitive cat, we sat at a kitchen table across from where Figueras perched on her bed. After an enthusiastic introduction from his English-language publisher, Figueras read two passages from his novel, in which a man remembers his childhood in Buenas Aires during the military junta of the 1970s.

Perhaps in a nod to the internationally-oriented festival, or perhaps in light of the curious Westbeth setting, Figueras chose passages which highlighted “two exotic places: Buenos Aires, which is not exotic to me, but is for much of the rest of the world,” and Kamchatka, a small peninsula in the far East of Russia which comes to represent a distant place of freedom and escape to Figueras’ young narrator, whose only experience with the region comes through playing the board game Risk. The passages read were episodic and felt almost complete, like a short story, and, in their descriptions of the children’s board games, invited listeners (at least some of us) a chance to mentally compare our own strategies for world domination with those of the young narrator.

After getting directions from Figueras’s host—”this is a really weird map,” she assured us, while trying to trace a path on our event handout—we made our way to our last stop, to see the disarming and boisterously charming short story author and creative writing teacher Daniel Orozco. Descending the stairs into a multi-level apartment (this one with a much fatter, more suspicious cat), we settled into the cozily cluttered studio of a lifelong Westbeth resident. As the guests sat on a piano bench and squeezed onto a sofa, Orozco situated himself at the end of the kitchen table and apologized to his host for reading the same short story (from his forthcoming collection Orientation) that he had favored his last guests with.

Orozco is a consummate reader, and in the course of his alternately hilarious and disturbing story about an increasingly distressing tour of an everyday white collar office, he seemed to not only connect with his audience, but also feed off their energy. The story—which was selected for inclusion in the 1995 edition of Best American Short Stories—is rhythmic and features, as a guest stated later to Orozco’s distinct approval, an utterly “relentless” narrator. Definitely the kind of story which truly shines when being read out loud.

Following this invigorating performance, Orozco talked about his writing process in a little more detail. “I need to find a puzzle,” he said, explaining that creating constraints of form or structure helped give him a place to start a story. The result, he said, is “hopefully something humane. I tell my students that all stories are about people. Borges wrote about people, even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

Having guidelines to write from doesn’t always make the process enjoyable, of course. “I hate writing 75% of the time,” Orozco said. “If writing were a person, that would be a really bad relationship. But the other 25% make it worth it.”