Cake Shop’s ‘Mixers’ end with Egan

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The author, Jennifer Egan. (Courtesy Harper Collins.)
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The small, windowless basement of the Lower East Side coffee shop-cum-record-store Cake Shop may seem a strange setting for a book reading, but the audience looked right at home on Wednesday night, sipping Blue Moon and sitting cross-legged on the floor where the few cushioned seats had been taken. The crowd had come to hear readings from Emily Feder, David Goodwillie, and Jennifer Egan. It was the last of this season's Mixer Reading and Music series, a monthly event hosting poets, fiction and non-fiction writers, and of course, rock bands.

While some of the audience members clutched copies of Goodwillie’s and Egan’s latest novels, there were many who sheepishly admitted that they hadn’t read either. One attendee described the Mixer series as a sort of sampler, helping him to sift through the enormous amount of contemporary fiction and decide which books were worth reading. “One of the great things about living here is having access to so many authors,” he said. “I don’t think I would read half of the stuff that I do if I didn’t go to readings.”

Emily Feder, an M.F.A. candidate at Columbia who writes primarily about immigration issues, opened the evening with an excerpt from her not-yet-published memoir. Her descriptions of the neuroses inflicted by coming of age on the Upper West Side with two psychoanalyst parents were received with knowing chuckles from the crowd. Next, David Goodwillie got up to read from his new novel, American Subversive—a passage that was incidentally set just a few blocks from the Lower East Side locale of Cake Shop.

Jennifer Egan, unquestionably the celebrity of the evening, looked a bit out of place in her striped navy top and knee-length skirt in a sea of tattered clothes and tattoos, but she smiled graciously at the smattering of applause as she stood up. The L.E.S. location proved apropos, as Egan’s latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, prominently features an aging punk-rocker and record executive. The book is structured like a record album, with a side A and side B, and consists of a series of loosely-related stories, included one that is told exclusively through PowerPoint.

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“I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t linear,” Egan said, when I asked about the non-traditional narrative. “The emotions and the characters that I wanted to convey just wouldn’t have come across in that form.”

One advantage of reading from this particular book was that, while connected, the stories are also independent from one another, each able to stand on its own. The other readings had been prefaced by long and confusing explanations of context and setting, but Egan merely opened to chapter eight, cleared her throat, and began: “Dolly’s first big idea was the hat. She picked teal blue, fuzzy, with flaps coming down over the general’s large dried-apricot ears …”

“At a place like this, where people are drinking… they want to hear something funny,” she said when asked about her choice of chapter.

The evening concluded with a performance from Duty Free, a Brooklyn-based rap/DJ group. They ascended the stage wearing the masks of various popular super-heroes, and yelling requests that the sound on the microphones be turned up. For all of her comfort with youth, technology, and the Lower East Side, Egan headed swiftly for the door.