Yesterday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, things got hairy in line for the talk Faces of Brooklyn. One woman put out her elbows as a man tried to edge past her, saying, “Don’t you cut in here. Don’t be a cutter.” A man further back turned to his friend and asked, “This is just a panel discussion, right? They’re not giving away free sandwiches or something?”
Two of the afternoon’s panelists, writer Adelle Waldman (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.) and cartoonist Adrian Tomine (New York Drawings), paint a strong image of young literary Brooklyn: where people live, how they dress, what they eat, the things they talk about. In one of Tomine’s drawings, “Missed Connection,” hipsters make eyes at each other as they read the same book on passing subway cars. Waldman’s characters also size up potential dates by their subway reading (Svevo and Bernhard rank above Dave Eggers).
For Waldman, the decision to set her novel in Brooklyn was an easy one. “I wanted to write about relationships and gender and the psychology of that, but you have to set a book somewhere so I just set it in the world I knew,” she said. “I lived in Brooklyn and I knew mostly writers, so it saved me from having to do research which I would have had to do if they were all opera singers or something.” When Tomine moved to New York from California, he used sketching as a way to explore his new home.
At times, their depictions come across as satirical. Waldman’s characters love kale, brunch, and boxy glasses. They commiserate about the unreliable G train and cop to dressing ironically in mom jeans and eighties-inspired clothing. In Tomine’s sketch “Read-Handed,” a woman looks guiltily at the owner of an independent bookshop as she signs for a package from Amazon. “I had a little bit of an agenda for that one,” Tomine admitted.
Humorous moments like these are often tinged with social criticism. Waldman’s Brooklyn is newly gentrifying; her characters are aware of displacing former residents, but that doesn’t stop them from being kind of smug about it. She writes, “Nate had moved in a few years before the current wave of ubergentrification; that his own apartment had hardly been improved was a source of pride.” On a first date, another character brags about her Midwestern family’s unease with her living situation: “Of course, the last time my parents visited they saw a drug deal go down in front of my building.”
At the Festival, Waldman explained, “The Brooklyn I evoked in my novel is a Brooklyn of transplants, of people who largely didn’t grow up in Brooklyn. I think that involves a lot of complicated issues for many of us because we’re very attached to the place — we’re very fond of it — but then also in a sense contributing to changes, not all of which are unambiguously good.” Even her characters show a certain self-consciousness about these developments. When one couple’s landlord mentions that renovation efforts were geared to “high-class tenants” (he exposed hardwood floors and preserved a clawfoot tub) Waldman writes, “Nate and Elisa, holding hands, nodded uneasily, unsure of the appropriate response to being so openly — and aptly — characterized as a certain kind of dupe.”
Max Eastman, in his 1936 book Enjoyment of Laughter, describes satire as having different “degrees of biting” — if this is so, the satire here is of the gentlest variety. Perhaps this is because, though neither Waldman nor Tomine are Brooklyn natives, both now call the borough home. Waldman spoke affectionately of a community that nurtured her creative efforts: “I spent many years trying to write this book and other books that didn’t get published.” Looking out at the packed room, she smiled. “I really loved being here in Brooklyn and having a community of people who took what I was doing seriously in a way that I felt other people in my life who had more conventional jobs and more conventional careers — things like 401(k)s and health insurance — didn’t always understand.”