Nathan Englander at Powell’s
The Voice Inside My Head
Nathan Englander was at Powell’s last Friday, and I’m still thinking about him. It’s hard to explain why, but I’ll try. It was a big crowd and it started off normally enough with the typical introduction. Then he stepped behind the lectern and stated, “I’m freshly washed in your honor. I dry up while I read. It always feels like an anxiety dream at the start – where am I, and why is everybody looking at me?”
He said he would read the short story “The Reader” from his new collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” and it would take somewhere between 26 and 31 minutes depending on how “dramatic” he got. It took 31 minutes. I should confess now that, normally, after 10 minutes of an author reading, I am more than ready to hit the Q & A portion of the evening – the “good” part. In fact, I have this recommendation that I share with any author who will listen: if you absolutely have to read, keep it to 10 minutes. Either the audience has already read your book, or they will read it later, but what they really want to hear you talk about is your writing process, influences, or better still, the details of your feud with another author who just won the Man Booker. For most, it’s the end of a long day. They came straight from work; maybe they skipped dinner. If it’s Portland, it’s raining outside. Also, attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Personally, after 10 minutes of reading, I normally fall into a state of panic with my mind wandering into its darkest recesses, and I’m ready to jump from my chair just thinking about everything that needs to be done when I get home. If the author has the audacity to read for 15, 20 or 30 minutes, I am thinking bad thoughts about them. Usually. But that didn’t happen with Englander.
Even though I had already read the story, it was amazing to hear it read aloud. Englander’s prose is elegantly minimal and pared down. It seemed as though a play was being performed, or as if Englander was just sitting around talking to us. I listened raptly and everyone else did too. You could tell they were listening closely because they sighed and laughed in all the right places. There was very little rustling. The minutes flew by. The 31 minutes felt like 10. Amazing.
Then he took questions – three of them. He said he really only needed to be asked what time it was and he would “tell you stories.” He got that right. With just three questions, Englander talked for 20 minutes about everything one could ever want to know about him and his work. He engaged in some sort of a beatbox, stream-of-consciousness, gansta-rap monologue, and it was riveting. Somehow, he was able to lasso all the disparate thoughts floating around in his head, and turn them into a cohesive and entertaining commentary. I don’t think he finished a sentence or a thought in any sort of linear fashion, and there’s no way I can synthesize what he actually said – but it was good.
Rarely do I become so completely enthralled by an author speaking that I enter the “zone” and forget where I am. But I was in the “zone” with Englander, and when I talked to him afterward, I told him it was like his voice was coming out of my own head. He didn’t seem fazed or surprised. He said, “That’s a nice image,” like he’d heard that a hundred times before.