H’m, which books to take on your summer writing retreat out in the woods?
You feel obliged to take some heavy, Teutonic hunk o’ pumpernickel like Thomas Mann—something you couldn’t possibly sink into in the City. You need to flex all those atrophying neural muscles going to fat from too many YouTube lunch breaks and Facebook memes.
But even the most brow-knitting wordsmith needs some intellectual cotton candy to sweeten those long hours of solitary toil. Something fun that isn’t dumb.
Which is surprisingly difficult to find.
Enter Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, a New York Review Books reprint of a 1968 “novel” whose technological gimmick of simply transcribing tape recordings of real-life beach chat in the Hamptons would seem to predate reality TV by several decades.
The characters of Talk, two straight women and a gay man knocking about in the lower echelons of the New York art world, could be lifted straight from a current-day HBO dramedy. Vinnie is a sculptor, Emily is an actress, and Marsha works for Sotheby’s.
But it’s summer 1965. What sets Talk apart as a cultural artifact is the wide-ranging content and quality of the actual chat. It’s almost poignant to ride on the roller coaster of their literate, bitchy, hilarious, sometimes contemptible banter in an age when entire books are devoted to the fact that the joys of conversation are quickly disappearing from our midst.
But that’s half the pleasure of the read. Delving into chapters with titles like “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies,” you feel as though you, too, are lying on Long Island in blinding heat, slaked with Coppertone and whining about how there was “nobody” at Sebastien’s party last night. Topics can switch gears instantly from the impossibility of love, to why ice floats, to food, to money, to meeting God on an LSD trip. A monologue on the nature of reality can provoke the retort, “Hey, is there any more lemonade?”
These three erstwhile children of the night are endlessly entertaining but whether or not they’re sympathetic is a tougher call. True, they’re self-described “pioneers” of social and sexual freedom, but they’re also unhappy, self-obsessed basket cases, each in therapy and unable to find love or success. Others in their peer group around this time were fighting against the Vietnam War or for civil rights; the biggest struggle for this lot is securing the primo spot on the beach and trying not to pop too many pills before Veruschka’s party.
Perversely, that’s just what makes Talk such wonderful dinner-break company when you’re slogging away on a manuscript in a lonely cabin. Of all the historical miseries, perhaps theirs were the most enviable. Who doesn’t want to be Emily quipping: Look, Marshie, we’re two beautiful women and we have to start making inroads?
This voyeuristic literary experiment ranks my discerning shortlist of summer-reading gold. With Talk lying around the cabin like an eyeliner-splashing divorcée on downers, let’s face it: that Thomas Mann is never going to see the outside of your knapsack.
© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson