Face to Face With Fiction
Five notable authors come to New Fiction Confab
Pop stars and plane crashes, cultists and zombies: If these are a few of your favorite things, you're in luck. This weekend, the fourth annual New Fiction Confab is bringing a quintet of contemporary authors to town whose recent works include all of the above and more.
The Confab is a series of free readings, workshops, and panel discussions by early- and mid-career authors held at the Austin Public Library every April. This year the Confab will be joined by the Austin Lit Fair, a first-time exhibition of Austin's small presses and literary publishers, including American Short Fiction, A Strange Object, Bat City Review, Foxing Quarterly, Unstuck, and Write Bloody. According to Austin Public Library Friends Foundation director Tim Staley, the Austin Lit Fair is just the latest development in the organic growth of the New Fiction Confab: "It has grown because people have discovered it and come to enjoy it on their own."
This year's lineup makes it easy to see why. Featuring Sam Lipsyte, Fiona Maazel, Susan Steinberg, Teddy Wayne, and Austin's own Manuel Gonzales, it may be the Confab's most stylistically diverse slate yet. From Gonzales' genre-bending short stories to Maazel's sprawling, chaotic novels and Steinberg's delicate experiments in language and identity, the Confab offers a snapshot of some of the most exciting directions in literary fiction.
While all of these authors occasionally incline toward grim humor, Lipsyte's short story collection The Fun Parts packs the most laughs per page. Lipsyte spits out punchlines like nails from a gun, skewering his characters' delusions of grandeur even while he elicits an uncomfortable sympathy for their plights. Headlining his gallery of freaks and loners is a drug addict named Gary, a disgruntled and sadistic dungeon master, and a hapless male doula with a Zenlike philosophy and all the charm of Newman from Seinfeld. Although multiple reviewers have called Lipsyte's characters "losers," he protests, "I don't think of them as losers. I think of them as people who struggle and have a hard time. ... They're more lost than losers."
Meanwhile, Teddy Wayne's novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine shows the price of winning. Told from the perspective of 11-year-old pop star Jonny Valentine, a tween crooner of Bieber-esque proportions, Wayne's second novel gets the most out of a narrator who knows all about branding but is still figuring out the whole masturbation thing. (Don't worry, he gets it by the end of the novel.) Jonny has grown up too fast in a maturity vacuum, surrounded by image-obsessed, emotionally stunted music industry hacks. Wayne's gift for crafting the voice of a talented outsider won him acclaim for his debut novel Kapitoil, but Jonny Valentine is both funnier and more heartbreaking; struggling to gain a sense of stability from the adults who live off his sales figures, he aches most of all for love from a mother who is first and foremost his manager.
After years of helping children and teens tell their stories as the director of the local nonprofit Austin Bat Cave, Gonzales tells a handful of his own in his debut story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. Gonzales' stories are wry, witty gems of uncertainty and alienation, staging the numbed-down emotions of daily life against a backdrop of extraordinary and fantastic events. An undercover zombie must control his impulse to eat people long enough to ask a woman out; a man shrinks his wife to the size of a coffee mug; a friendship is permanently ruined by a unicorn. These are the situations that Gonzales renders with surprisingly realistic detail, harnessing their absurdity to evoke the displacement and disconnectedness we experience in the midst of even our most intimate relationships.
Tackling isolation on a different scale, Fiona Maazel's novel Woke Up Lonely imagines a self-help cult that becomes wildly successful by promising to end the problem of loneliness once and for all. An indictment of our hyperconnected-yet-alienating culture, it is also a sweeping love story between a cult leader and the government agent assigned to follow him. Maazel's offbeat humor, chaotic plotting, and conspiracy-driven narratives have drawn comparisons to the "systems novels" of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, in which characters flounder in large-scale systems that consistently fail them. However, for Maazel, Woke Up Lonely is primarily about a single question: "Is loneliness surmountable, or not?"
In Steinberg's short story collection Spectacle, an assortment of female narrators ask a similar question of the audience itself, as if reaching out of the pages of the book. Plots are repeated with minor variations – a daughter decides to have her sick father's feeding tube removed, a young woman witnesses a plane crash – but lyrical commentary on gender and identity signals that this is less about one woman than about what it means to be a woman at all. Steinberg – who once chaired the board of directors for VIDA, an organization that studies cultural perceptions of women writers – experiments with punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, and the results are oddly hypnotic, creating minor shifts in identity that often read more like poetry than prose.
The authors will take the podium at the Faulk Central Library to read from their work, answer questions from the audience, and participate in discussions moderated by local authors ZZ Packer and Doug Dorst. Audience members may also submit questions for the closing Writer's Forum in advance via Facebook and Twitter (@APLFF); those whose questions are selected will win signed book copies.n
The New Fiction Confab and the Austin Lit Fair will take place from 2-5pm on Saturday, April 13, at the John Henry Faulk Central Library. Workshops will take place at library branches at 10am the same day. For schedules and workshop registration information, or to purchase tickets for a private author party on Friday, April 12, visit www.austinlibrary.org.