New York Review Books, 2015
Summer reading lists, the midyear staples of literary sites, blogs, and review pages, are necessarily the stuff of fantasy: what we will pack to read on the beach in between dips in the azure ocean, what we will take on that plane trip to exotic lands or read in the train compartment as we rocket off to parts unknown. Even if the reality is more about what will best distract us from the sweltering dead heat of the subway platform on the same old daily commute, it’s a nice construct.
Discovering your book of the summer, on the other hand, happens in real time. Like the song of the summer, or your summer love, you look up and realize that it will be forever linked to a particular time and place. The time is usually mid-August, maybe late July, and even if the place really is the sweltering subway platform with no vacation in sight, it’s still a moment of confectionary clarity that makes the absence of that azure ocean a little more bearable.
Elsewhere (OK, Twitter) I described Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, as my literary summer soundtrack, and I’m not sure I can come up with a better description than that. First published in 1968, Talk is a transcript of three friends having a months-long, meandering conversation in the Hamptons during the summer of 1965—originally a number of people taped by Rosenkrantz, distilled down to two women, a writer and an actress, and their gay male best friend, a painter. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s, involved in the ’60s New York art scene—Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler are name-dropped—and everyone, as was the fashion, is in analysis. They talk on the beach, in cars, over meals and drinks, packing, unpacking. The conversations veer from banal to deep, self-centered to compassionate, trite to interesting, and cover a lot of bases—at least where sex, art, food, relationships, and therapy are concerned.
EMILY: What’s the matter, darling?
VINCENT: I’m so sad.
VINCENT: Because that’s what being alive is.
EMILY: I know it, I’m sad all the fucking time, you have no idea.
VINCENT: I heard something last week about what makes humans different from animals, some gorgeous basic thing, like that humans have memories, but it’s not that.
EMILY: What is it?
VINCENT: Something absolutely beautiful. Are you putting garlic powder in too? Wow, is that cheap. Why use fresh garlic then?
Do people even talk to each other about their therapy anymore? I don’t mean the way everyone airs their mental and physical health on Facebook, but in-depth discussions? The friends in Talk analyze their analyses, and their analysts, as if they’re talking about their favorite sports teams:
EMILY: When I was going over the Emil Reinhardt affair with my doctor, he said it sounded like a threepenny novel.
MARSHA: My doctor says my life is a soap opera.
EMILY: Mine said a threepenny novel
MARSHA: Soap opera.
EMILY: His grasp of dialect is different. Anyway, the point is that my syndrome is just the opposite of yours.
Rosenkrantz has clearly done her editing work; Stephen Koch’s introduction mentions that she began the process with 25 characters and 1,500 pages of single-spaced transcripts. The resulting dialogue is deceptively artless, often with implied stops, starts, changes in tone that register in the reader’s ear before any visuals begin to form.
EMILY: And there’s a certain kind of man’s body I love—it’s a body on which clothes just hang because he doesn’t care about them, but that looks beautiful in bed. It’s a secret body. I love people with secret bodies, secretly beautiful.
MARSHA: I love mayonnaise on my arm, that’s one of my great pleasures.
EMILY: Leave it there, it’s good for suntan cream.
In fact, the chatter is weirdly delightful, even when the speakers themselves get tiresome—the rhythms of the conversation of friendship are what makes the book work. It doesn’t read like a stage play or even a script, as there’s almost no movement, physical or plotwise. But there’s a kind of music to it, even when the reader thinks—often—that they’re all slightly narcissistic and immature.
MARSHA: That’s the thing, you always have to warm these guys up, keep the fires burning, have the blankets ready and the hot tea, all these spiritual heating pads. Who needs it?
But aren’t we all sometimes?—and even more to the point, don’t we think so about our nearest and dearest, inwardly rolling our eyes even as we still love them? Talk is like that exactly, and it swings along cheerfully even as it takes some dark turns. It’s a fine summer read, and it’s guaranteed to put a little burnish on your own shooting the breeze with friends—like a summer song, it’s frothy but still reverberates in your head for a good while after it ends.