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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Introducing Alice Mattison

Sorry I haven't been writing! Great things are afoot at the day-job, but of course I am not allowed to talk about them. And there are all these things I've been meaning to say, but they're all percolating, and they'll probably all bubble to the surface at the same time and I'll be unable to speak coherently. For a change.

Last night I was asked to introduce the writer Alice Mattison at a reading at Brooklyn College. I wasn't going to share this, but I got asked a few times and her book is wonderful and unexpected and wild. Here's what I said:

There’s a part in Alice Mattison’s latest novel, When We Argued All Night, in which Harold, a self-conscious intellectual Jewish guy, is flirting it up with Myra, who’s this hot, reserved WASP. They’re talking about Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, which she swiped his copy of.

It had not occurred to him that Myra would have read the book, much less have an opinion about it. He was charmed, though he disagreed. He tried to explain what he believed to be true about the ending. If James thinks Isabel Archer should stay away from her husband, what is the book about? Why would it end just there? What has she accomplished?

Myra scoffed. What does anyone accomplish? She should have stayed away. She could manage.

In college, they did not speak as if characters in books could have chosen to do something else. Harold couldn’t think how to explain that this wasn’t the proper way to read.

This is one of Alice Mattison’s favorite things to do (not that I have any idea whether that’s actually true or not) : To introduce us to characters, a scene, a reality, and then subvert it by completely reversing the tension, upstaging the power dynamic, and yanking the carpet from beneath the reader’s feet.

Mattison is a remarkable, piercing, unsettling and versatile writer. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont. She’s published five novels and four collections of short stories, and, as far as I can tell, is equally at home in both forms. She has a knack for details, quirks, surprise turns, and single lines that could be novels unto themselves. She also might be one of our finest living book titlers: the novel The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman; the collection Men Giving Money, Women Yelling; and her previous book, 2009's Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn.

When We Argued was released this summer and . It was a New York Times editors’ choice book, and received a wholeheartedly geeking-out review: “Mattison makes you care about her characters right to the end, and care so deeply that you take their every disappointment personally.”

In an alternate universe, Mattison’s acts of world-building might belong to a science fiction grand master. Among the several achievements of When We Argued, Mattison takes us back to the mid-1930s in Jewish America and, with startlingly little explanation or set-up, gives us a vivid picture of what it’s like to be a Jew in a world where half the population is trying to kill you and the other half has no idea that it’s happening. In one line, the novel is straddling a fence with Catskills hookups a la Dirty Dancing, the next it’s sharing Holocaust-era guilt and aggression with Maus.

She gives the same weight to police beatings, family fights, and a strip-tease in a 1930s Catskills bungalow. When We Argued might be a secret epic, one that takes on the grandest scope--two best friends, an entire lifetime--but also breathes life into the smallest of moments.

Here she is.

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