The President in Her Towers at Unnameable Books

Everyone knows Brooklyn is the most literary of boroughs. Case in point: last Thursday I went to a reading at Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights (a great place for browsing and the kind of used bookstore you just don’t see so much anymore, unfortunately) to hear Tom Whalen, who was my writing teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts over 20 years ago, read from his new novel, The President in Her Towers, published by Ellipsis Press. It’s a strange and terrific book, which reads alternately like a magical realist fantasy and a satire of university bureaucracy, with a healthy dose of mystery and of the absurd thrown in. It’s also very funny, mostly because the unreliable narrator, who is the assistant to the university president, is in absolute thrall to his employer. Here’s a selection from the chapter he read. The president and her assistant are atop the Sciences Tower of the university.

I nodded, and then from her head sprouted a feather, her coat spread its wings, her eyes narrowed, the cold reddened her cheeks, and from her head now grew a long neck, the neck of a goose, the neck of a swan, an anhinga. It grew and grew, it curved into the air, formed an exclamation mark, a question mark, an ampersand, and her feet were bird’s feet, her feet were claws, the beak stretched around in the air, searching for food, searching for other birds, and the sky reddened, the sky rolled up like a newspaper, the clouds folded into themselves, and her arms disappeared into her sides.

I’m still not sure if the narrator was simply hallucinating this whole scene. You can download an excerpt or purchase the book at Ellipsis Press’s website.

There was also a reading by C. Morgan Babst from her novel in progress set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The character in this chapter is dealing not just with the aftermath of the hurricane, but also with his father who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. A persistent mockingbird outside their window seems to bring the father almost to the breaking point. The author’s attention to detail and her carefully-paced explorations of the characters’ inner lives make me eager to see what else the storm has wrought in her book.

Nathaniel Otting performed some of his poems in a way that mystified me at first, but had a certain Dada-esque charm. He read aphorisms and plays on words from blank index cards with a kind of self-deprecating and likable theatricality.

Photo: Kate Deimling