The Anxiety of Mentorship



I walked to Greenlight early — at least an hour before the seven-thirty start — just as they were moving tables of books to the side of the room up against the pine stained bookshelves and unfolding hardwood chairs into salon rows.

The reading was editorially mentioned on the twenty-fifth, and her publisher had purchased a full bleed ad on the seventeenth page of the May Fourteenth New Yorker. It was a Thing™. The front row reserved, intimately four feet from the empty stools and podium, and within ten minutes the storefront was overflowing the maybe thirty-seven seats on the floor.

But the attention could have been for either of them; Jonathan Franzen the awarded interviewer, or Rachel Kushner the nominated flamethrower and author of The Mars Room. For me it was initially Franzen, who I’d heard speak at my sister’s graduation in twenty-twelve. I knew him that awarded-reputation, by those words, and some short essays and the trivial geographic knowledge he’d written parts of his second or third major novel on campus at Cowell. And most especially that he “Lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.”

Molly’s Tuesday Nights in 1980 Brooklyn reading was hosted at Greenlight while I was in DC. I’d missed her Bookshop reading as well. I did not miss her pubication, nor the proofed paperback galleys when I read them as a fed-exed, dog-eared copy that had made the rounds from the commune and to Trin and Dad before I sent— I can’t remember where I sent them next. Back, probably.

The bookstore operator, by way of needing-no-introduction yet still suffusing praise upon Franzen, brings him onto the stage along with his sheets of printed notes and handwritten questions on the back. “I don’t really do this very often, but for Rachel… I just think this book is …” he seems somehow embarrassed by how much he’s excited by it. He reads his introduction from the printed pages, dressed looking very much like a professor, tall with lithe shoulders beneath his graying hair. He details their long connection, as an MFA advisor and that her writing was rough,  as it is when you’re coming up, and that, turning to the registers in her direction, did she remember that half hour spent diagramming past perfect participles and the difference between “lay and lie, and to be honest I wish a lot of the copy editors at the big houses could stand to learn the difference, too.”

But the highlight, of his whole unitary time as a writing teacher in the mid nineties, was her passage about a junkie who let a lathe fall off a ledge, something beautiful destroyed. He found her first book Telex from Cuba good, but still clunky. And that there is an adage — if you haven’t found a mastery and command for language, a thing that just happens, by the age of thirty-five, well then it probably just isn’t going to happen. But that when he read her galleys of The Flamethrowers, he didn’t even recognize this voice at all.

Somehow, she had done it. And how? Disproven that rule entirely. He starts to go further into this praise, but cuts himself off, editing himself in real time, “I have a long paragraph about this…. that I’m not going to read. I’ll just get to the punchline.” It’s not about you, here and now, dear Jon, something in him seems to say.

What — exactly — is the purpose of a reading?

Kushner is sharper, funnier, spontaneously observant, and despite the Augustine confessional to being “not nervous, at all,” is somehow more at ease than her once-teacher-now-peer. Dressed in white, fumbling with her lavalier mic “because she didn’t get here early to test everything out.” Her family is in the front row, aunt filming on a camcorder with the flip out screen. She doesn’t want to introduce the section she reads because she doesn’t get the point of that, doesn’t understand the scaffolding of trying to frame a section that otherwise doesn’t and won’t really mean anything to us outside of here, or for the rest of our lives. Really.

“Every person deserves peace. He meant, whether anyone deserves anything is beside the point. He needed certain things to feel okay. Vanessa was among those things. He needed dark and heavy curtains, because he had a sleeping problem. He need Klonopin, because he had a nerve problem. He need Oxycontin because he had a pain problem. He needed liquor because he had a drinking problem.”

Kushner, The Mars Room

After she recites and quickly-says-thanks, they sit on awkward, uncomfortable “you guys are really taking this reclaimed thing too far” stools with shovel handles for backs, and Franzen asks her a question he is striving and stumbling to make sure she hasn’t gotten before;

“Why did you insist I read the Ferrante novels?” with what I presume is a subtext of “I did not like them.” For the next hour or so, there is an awkwardness. For both of them. And it’s unclear if its origin is jealousy, or a self-consciousness about poor question asking on behalf of someone probably just too damn smart to be doing this, or something entirely else that perhaps neither of them could put their finger on, and are they sitting with the discomfort of it, or not?

But it’s also deeply revealing of their dynamic, of the situation, of perhaps the general situational discomfort of readings by authors who you probably don’t necessarily want to shine in this environment, either alone or in the proximity of one of their former students.

“Because I thought you would enjoy the pleasure of it. And I’ve read interviews in which she talks about having the experience of writing 100 pages at a time, just in a large section, without looking back. But I can’t do that.  I’m a writer who concerns herself with the unit of the paragraph, rather than just the massive stream of pages and pages.”

And so, within that hour — within all of these anxieties, real or imagined — we learn things.

About her artist-friend James Benning’s re-constructing the fraternal Two Cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski, the latter of whom he charmed with birthday wishes via letter in jail to beguile out the measurements of his old self-imposed cell’s exact rafter distance.

About her work in prisons as a volunteer, not researcher, in that quest for empathy that only later began to understand and then express in words how a human can commit a murder, be incarcerated and yet still find themselves in a community, where the only capital is how socially present, beguiling, charming, threatening, clever, and compelling you are with these other killers of other humans. And that her favorite reading of her entire life was in a women’s prison a few weeks ago.

“Pain hurts, but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficinecy, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived.”

Franzen, 2011 Kenyon College Commencement Address, Farther Away

  1. As an absentminded and chronically late human (except for yoga classes and film screenings), I’m always perpetually stunned by the various ways in which the universe rewards, via sunrises or best seats in the house or extra time for contemplation, and has never helped me to regret — not once — getting somewhere early. Never too late to start, nor too early to begin.

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