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Flex in the City

Thomas Beller plays a little trick on me. The young Manhattan-based fiction writer -- whom The New York Times has called ”brilliant“ and the New York Observer ”a local rake“ -- is late to our lunch at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop, where I’ve been waiting, for the better part of the afternoon, at a table covered with his books. He‘s on his way from the airport, and since I don’t have a cell phone, he leaves a succession of messages on my voice mail at work, like a trail of bait. But each time I return his call from the nearby pay phone, I get the same deep, melodious recording; quick but confident, it‘s the harried but enthused tone of someone on his first national literary tour. Then, on my third attempt, Beller answers.

”I’m so sorry, I‘m not going to make it after all,“ he tells me.

”I’ve been waiting an hour and a half,“ I say into the phone, which is on the other side of the wall directly behind my booth. Suddenly, the waitress comes through the door waving, but I ignore her and continue. ”Maybe we could . . .“

”It just won‘t happen on this visit to L.A.,“ Beller cuts in, flippantly. At which point, I let professional courtesy fall by the wayside and, voice rising, recall a list of all the ways he’s inconvenienced me this afternoon. The waitress, a peculiar look on her now red face, begins pointing emphatically through the doorway. And that‘s when I catch on.

Back in my booth, Beller sits laughing, and snaps his cell phone shut. He is wild-eyed and enormous. At 6-foot-5, with long, gangly limbs, a mess of scraggly hair, and giant, awkward hands and feet, he is nothing like the mellow and more manicured photo on the back of his debut novel, The Sleep-Over Artist.

”So tell me, what are we doing here, dear?“ asks Beller with an extravagant wave, apparently referring to the distance I’ve forced him to drive.

Beller‘s voice, too, is big; though he’s lived his entire life in New York it carries, curiously, the faint trace of what sounds like a British accent. ”Figure,“ for example, is ”figger.“ He is a loud but cultured presence. But Beller is also enormously smart and ambitious (if a bit enormously taken with himself); and, having spent time as a staff writer for The New Yorker, co-founded (with Daniel Pinchbeck and the late Robert Bingham) the literary magazine Open City and authored the short-story collection Seduction Theory, Beller has been, if not enormously successful, then at least enviably so. With The Sleep-Over Artist, he‘s become that particular breed of bookish celebrity that seems possible only within the confines of literary New York.

Beller is not unaware of his strategic position. He goes to parties so often that the Observer notes when there is a ”Thomas Beller sighting in effect,“ and he was named one of ”the 100 most-wanted bachelors in New York“ by Manhattan File. Clearly, Beller has crafted a BIG persona for himself, though he won’t admit it: ”People always bring up marketing. I‘m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to get through the day and find something that animates me enough to get through the fucking gate,“ he says. ”But it‘s interesting that this [issue] keeps coming up. What people are basically asking is, ’How do you construct a self? Is it an authentic self?‘ These are questions that apply to everybody.“

Still, the persona of Thomas Beller -- the strapping, shaggy-haired intellectual who almost exclusively wears worn-out T-shirts and speaks in quick, enthusiastic bursts -- has become larger than the writing itself, somewhat obscuring it. Detractors argue that he’s all gloss, and a debate has exploded online over -- of all things -- his physicality and his personality. Which is a shame, because it‘s Beller’s writing that should be drawing attention.

The Sleep-Over Artist is a smart and funny episodic novel that follows the restless Upper West Side character Alex Fader through a string of romantic interludes, throughout which the protagonist prides himself on two things: his sense of irony, and his ability to bring women to orgasm (in one case, with his big toe). A literary Seinfeld of sorts, Beller has an admirable eye for detail and a cutting observational wit that wryly pokes fun at the quotidian moments of daily life in New York, highlighting the ”seconds of pleasure“ in our lives, as Beller puts it.

Noting this to him, I am reminded of why I wanted to meet Beller in the first place. But almost as soon as we get started, his cell phone rings, and he‘s up from the table pacing the length of the restaurant in giant strides, talking loudly: ”Hey, my man. How are you?“ He returns to the table with a beer and launches into a 10-minute aside about the journalist Joseph Mitchell. I try to steer him back, if just to work in a question or two before he’s off to a reading at Vroman‘s in Pasadena. Beller responds to my prodding with contempt. Leaning forward on his elbows and resting his jaw in his palms, he gives a series of clipped, one-word answers: ”Um,“ ”Mm-hmm,“ ”Hm.“

”When did you begin at The New Yorker?“ I ask.

”If you want a summary, not to be a pretentious asshole, but I don’t feel like recounting it all,“ he says, sounding remarkably like a pretentious asshole. ”I wrote about this a little bit in a story called ‘Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man’ -- it wasn‘t a story, actually, it was an essay.“

But when I press him on the topic, Beller opens up -- if just to vent. ”I think The New Yorker is run by a bunch of fucking goody-goodies with sticks up their asses. The Talk of the Town especially is like a dry piece of birdshit that’s accrued on the back of a window sill. It‘s run by people who got over 1,500 on their SATs. I’m sorry, but that‘s not what the fucking art world is made of.“

Then Beller softens: ”I wasn’t that comfortable there,“ he admits. ”I just -- I came running out of the gate, and I froze. Something in me went NO! and I resisted the trap that I was being pulled into -- New Yorker--land. And I just sort of freaked, and I stopped writing.“

Beller cut himself so far loose from The New Yorker that he ended up across the world in Cambodia, at a little daily paper there, where he wrote about, of all things, New York. And women. Specifically, New York women. ”The New Yorker gong just went off in my head. And in Phnom Penh, I had no competition. Everyone was covering the coup. So I just kept writing my Talk of the Town pieces.“

And when he returned to the States, it was with The Sleep-Over Artist, which is, not surprisingly, mostly about women. (”What else is there to be interested in?“ he says.) It is also seemingly for women, and has been reviewed prominently in numerous women‘s magazines -- even celebrated by one (Elle hosted a lavish book-release party for him). And he is, according to Salon, part of a new trend it dubbed ”dude-lit“ -- young, urban, angst-ridden writing, the male equivalent to ”chick-lit“ classics like Bridget Jones’ Diary.

”I‘m not writing for fucking anybody,“ says Beller. ”I’m writing for myself and, like, three guys.“

With that he winds our interview to a close, and in a few long strides he‘s across the room and out the door and into the parking lot, with me in his wake; but not before first offering a list of L.A. ”insights.“

On New Yorkers’ view of L.A. writers: ”We think they all suck,“ he says in jest.

On local politics: ”I love the Quackenbush story. Quackenbush! How do you get into politics -- how do you get elected with a name like that?!“

On L.A. traffic: ”The most crowded motherfuckin‘ freeways -- this is like Apocalypse Now Part 3, this fuckin’ city. It scares me more than any other city in the world.“

And then he‘s off in his rental car, into the heart of rush-hour darkness.

Later that night, I phone Vroman’s to see if he has anything to add. And he does, in this message he passed on to a store employee.

”Tell her,“ Beller said, ”that there were a bunch of kindergarten children here tonight, and when I said the word vagina, they all stood up and stared.“

”But that‘s not true,“ the employee told him.

”I know,“ Beller said, chuckling at his little joke. ”Just tell her.“


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