Karole Kaner had been one of Leda’s favorite professors. She was an aloof woman who wore indefinable writerly clothing (Is that a vest or a robe or just a dress maybe?). She wrote mostly flash fiction, and she said things like, “If you send your work out, you will get published.” And, “Good writing is an end in itself.” Every time she’d workshop a story she’d treat the work with the same respect you’d give to a published piece. She once told Leda that her story was “punchy and fun and as bold as anything I’ve ever read.” When Leda found out that Professor Kaner would be giving a reading in San Francisco she couldn’t wait to attend.
The day of the reading Leda put on a nice blouse and a pair of boots. It wasn’t quite indefinable writerly garb, but she felt she looked nice. She was nervous and excited in a way she hadn’t been in a very long time. Suddenly all the feelings of independence of the life that she’d known before welled up in her; she felt as if she were walking straighter then. I walk straighter when I have somewhere to walk, she thought.
The event was being held at a small bookstore in the more trendy part of the Mission district. When they got there it immediately became apparent that they should have gotten there earlier. The entire place was packed. People were pressed with their backs against the wall. Leda found an empty spot next to an aging hipster and his overdressed date. John stood behind her since there wasn’t enough space to stand side by side. Such a large crowd was surprising. The majority of writers struggled to fill rooms, or so had been her experience in Boston, anyway. But the crowd in San Francisco was different. It was a room filled with techies and wealthy bohemians all clinging to their mid-thirties as if that were youth, reaching for anything that might make them seem with-it and intellectual. As if it were cool, as if they were young, as if they gave a shit about books, she thought.
Besides (and no doubt in connection to) the larger crowd, the room overwhelmingly stunk of farts. It was likely that the bookstore’s ventilation system hadn’t been designed to hold so many farts at one time, or maybe it was the wine and cheese offered for everyone to snack on; whatever the reason was, it was unbearable. She looked back at John and scrunched her nose.
“I know,” he mouthed in response.
As they were being squished and smelling farts, an older woman was reading a short story. She looked messy and was wearing big, unflattering glasses. Her expression was one that said, Don’t doubt me because I look this ridiculous. I look this ridiculous on purpose. Leda couldn’t really follow what she was reading. They had missed the first part, and it was so boring and so pretentious that it was impossible to retain over the farts.
“Ellia had cruelly disinterested sisters. One for the stars. An ex-patriot to her husband’s parasol,” she read.
Someone in the crowd made a little “hmm” sound of approval after she read “ex-patriot of parasols,” or whatever it was. “Hmm” was the only acceptable sound you could make during a reading. It was the intellectual form of cheering. Whenever a writer would reference The Great Gatsby or some other book that everyone on earth has heard of, you could be sure to hear a chorus of “hmms.” What they really meant was, “I HEARD OF THAT! I KNOW THAT REFERENCE!! ME! I EXIST TOO! I’M LITERARY AND I EXIST!! I READ THE GREAT GATSBY IN HIGH SCHOOL. ME! ME!! ME!! I MATTER!! MEEEEEE!!!!!!” Maybe if you actually were relevant you wouldn’t need to confirm it so often, she thought. Or maybe you’re saying “hmm” to cover up the sound of a giant fart. Frankly, I’d rather hear the fart. At least then we’d know you were relevant.
“It was likely that the bookstore’s ventilation system hadn’t been designed to hold so many farts at one time, or maybe it was the wine and cheese offered for everyone to snack on; whatever the reason was, it was unbearable.”
The bookstore itself was a crisp, modern-looking place. It had a sort of minimalist/hipster aesthetic, with a table at the center that had little novelty gifts and trinkets that undoubtedly sold more than the books. Leda liked the watermelon erasers and the bookmark that said “Reading > everything.” A girl near the table nudged her boyfriend and motioned to a duck-shaped stapler.
“How brave I was then. The earth looking iridescent from the open plain,” the lady read. Leda tried to imagine what an iridescent earth would look like. On display on the top shelf just to the right of the podium was a coffee table book with a topless woman on the cover who had the largest breasts Leda had ever seen. Tits, it was called.
“The infamous people she’d always known. He lit his cigarette, cool,” the woman continued, and Leda just looked at the nipples and areolas and round iridescent earth tits.
The story ended with some kind of thing about a divorce. It was a bit of a fallaway ending, as was customary for writers who took themselves so seriously. The final line ended on an image that was supposed to sort of emblematize everything that the story was about without actually fully making sense.
“And she stirred that pasta for a very long time. Thank you.” The lady did a final slight nod and everyone clapped and a few people said “hmm.”
“And now for someone who needs no introduction at all,” she said, and cleared her throat.
That’s probably not true. We probably have no idea who this person is, Leda thought.
“His stories have been published in the online journal The Ocean Online Review and Semester, as well as in Retrovia and The Gunther Quarterly.”
No one has any idea what any of those are. You could literally be making each of these up, and I would be just as impressed as I am right now.
“And he was recently short-listed for the very prestigious Catacomb Award.”
That means nothing to anyone.
“He’ll be reading a selection from his newest short story collection, entitled Iceberg Ashes. Please welcome Steven Ellington.”
Steven Ellington was a gaunt, frail-looking man who wore decidedly nicer glasses than the lady before him. He was in a tweed jacket, as was expected of him by probably the majority of people in his life, and when he spoke he had the tendency to look off as if this were a considerably larger room than it actually was.
“Thank you, Christine. Wasn’t that impressive?” he said. “Christine and I go way back to our graduate school days. Just kidding.”
Everyone laughed politely.
“Was that a joke?” Leda whispered to John. John shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“No, but truly we have been friends for quite a while. This is a story I wrote after I lived in Hungary for six weeks. It’s called ‘Budapest, My Hidden Mesopotamia.’ ”
Oh Christ, Leda thought. The story was as terrible as its title. It was another typical trope of the literary community that drove her crazy: centering a story on a place so you didn’t have to actually have anything to say. The whole thing reminded her of something her cousin Reid once said to her as he was showing her pictures of his trip to Paris. He was flipping through them quickly on his iPhone.
“The Eiffel Tower,” he said, and showed her a picture of the Eiffel Tower he took. He paused for a second and looked at his photo. “I’ve often wondered what the point of taking pictures of something like the Eiffel Tower is. I mean, this certainly isn’t the best picture of the Eiffel Tower, and everyone has already seen a picture of the Eiffel Tower, so really what’s the point of taking it?”
“To show that you were there,” she said.
“Yes, but I’m not even in the picture,” he said. And to that she didn’t really know what to say because it was true. And here was Steven Ellington in tweed reading his story about Budapest that certainly wasn’t the best story about Budapest ever written, and it seemed like an exercise in futility, a picture to show you were there when you weren’t even in the picture.
After Steven Ellington, there was a woman who read a story full of imagery and lists.
“There were two pinwheels, a flashlight, a pack of matches, six different pairs of shoes, and a double-breasted comb,” one of them read, and everyone laughed because for this audience that passed as humor.
Then there was another man who read a story about going on a trip through the woods with his dying father or some such thing, and right as he read the line “I’d known love in those woods that I’d never know again,” a crazy street person could be heard screaming from outside, “My face, my face!”
If this is what it means to be a writer then god help me, she thought. But then her professor came on. It was thrilling for her to see Karole standing there, this imposing woman in her writerly clothing who had said so many things that Leda told herself at night to make the future seem less uncertain.
“I hope you guys have been enjoying tonight as much as I have,” Karole said. “I fear you’ll feel nothing but pity when you hear my story, which pales in comparison to what everyone has been reading. But anyway, here we go, it’s called ‘Celery.’ ”
“The story was as terrible as its title. It was another typical trope of the literary community that drove her crazy: centering a story on a place so you didn’t have to actually have anything to say.”
The story was different from anything that anyone else had read that night, that was true. It was funny, and it was about feeling alone. Her style was restrained and fluid. And as she read, Leda blinked visions from her childhood that she hadn’t remembered until then. For brief moments she was no longer in the hip little bookstore with watermelon erasers and tits. As Karole read, “That evening there was a change,” she felt like she was somewhere far and close all at once; a restoration of all the little implosions from the night came together. So much was made brilliantly vivid by the words.
There were two more readers after Karole, but by then Leda couldn’t wait for the reading to end so she could go up and say hi and tell her professor how great the story was and how her class had been so inspiring and maybe ask her for advice on writing a novel.
The room became chaotic and loud as the reading came to a close. Everyone made a dash for the wine and cheese. A few skinny hipsters were fighting their way to Steven Ellington. The lady with the big glasses was laughing and nodding. Leda pushed her way through the crowd and John followed close behind. She could see Karole gathered around with the other writers. They hugged and congratulated each other on the reading. Karole was holding a wineglass. Her hair was curled nicely, and she was wearing an elaborately embroidered poncho or vest of some kind. Leda tapped the back of her shoulder. “Hi, Karole.”
Karole turned and smiled at her. “Oh, hi . . .”
“I just wanted to come say hello and tell you how much I loved your story. It was just fantastic. Honestly, it was so, so good. I just loved it. It’s always so inspiring to hear your work. It just makes me want to go home and write.”
“Thank you!” Karole looked at Leda for a second. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again? Were you in one of my classes? I’m just terrible with names. I’m sorry.”
Leda was immediately embarrassed. Of course she doesn’t know who I am. I’m just some idiot without an elaborately embroidered vest.
“No, it’s fine. It’s Leda. Yeah, I was in your class a year ago.”
“Sorry, I’m just so bad with names.”
“That’s okay, I’m sure you have a ton of students.”
“Well, you know how it is. Are you writing these days?” she said.
“Yeah, I’m working on a novel, or trying to, anyway. I just moved out here to San Francisco with my boyfriend, John.” Leda motioned back to John.
John leaned in and offered his hand. “Hi, nice to meet you.”
Karole shook it and nodded. “Well, you just keep writing. You know that’s half the battle,” she said.
Leda couldn’t help but wonder what the other half was.
“Well, that was the absolute worst,” John said as they left.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Don’t let that woman get to you, she’s just some crazy old lady.”
“Yeah,” she said.
When they got outside the air felt fresh. It smelled so good. “Wow, you forget the whole world doesn’t smell like farts,” John said.
Leda nodded. She too had gotten used to the smell.
From The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by Jana Casale.