Maritime Food and Literary Inventiveness: Matthew Gavin Frank at Book/Plate

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The email from Jeff Waxman had said that there would be one more Book/Plate event this year, and I had to read it twice: “a literary supper series at Peck’s Specialty Foods in Clinton Hill.” The rest of Jeff’s missive was charmingly dictated in the style of Moby-Dick, and then I finally came to the name: “Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost.” A dinner with squid, starring the author of a book about giant squids—what else would I do with a Tuesday evening?

I could hardly imagine an even more pleasant option, and so I put on my cardigan and I took the G train down.

Peck’s stands out with an imposingly blue storefront on Myrtle Avenue, a sign that Clinton Hill is transforming into a trendy neighborhood. There were other restaurants and bars along the same strip, but none of them boasted the brightly lit, clean feel of a Jewish deli. I went inside and squeezed past a white counter toward the backyard patio.

I had arrived early and there were already people sitting at the trestle tables. One of them turned out to be the co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo. She gestured at the towering pile of Preparing the Ghosts: “Jeff convinced me to truck all of these over here. But I’ve done it for two other Book/Plates already . . .” She chuckled.

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It was a perfect confluence of Brooklyn interests. “We all live within a three-block radius of each other,” Bagnulo said of herself, Theo Peck, and the event’s mastermind, Jeff Waxman. Jeff had been a bookseller before moving to New York City to handle marketing for Other Press, and yet he’d found a way to keep putting books in people’s hands. As for the food? The delicacies Peck’s offered only sweetened the deal.

Every so often, wait staff floated out with beer for all of us talking. More and more people filtered in. Everybody was buzzing about Matthew Gavin Frank. “I actually picked up his book, and I’m always keeping my eye out for good nonfiction, but this is really—” here the marketing director of Dzanc books uttered several profanities “—I mean, really brilliant.” Soon there was a crowd that seemed evenly split between literati—editors from Harper’s and Time talking to each other—and foodies, all of whom laughed when I mentioned that I hadn’t met Theo Peck yet. If I wanted to talk to him, they said, it would be a few hours before I could get a word in edgewise. But the food would leave me speechless.

And all around us appetizers were being carried around on trays, evidently inspired by the book. There were biscuits that looked like hardtack but far tastier than any three-month-stale bread. I bit into a concoction that tasted of hummus but was pitch-black because it had squid ink as well. We tried to figure out the maritime connotations of each morsel, but relented once we let the flavors explode on our tongue. Maybe I didn’t need to talk to Theo Peck.

And in the crowd a tousle-haired man in a professorial jacket was nodding enthusiastically. I recognized him from the author photos: Matthew Gavin Frank. He got up on the stage and suddenly the patio was transformed into a lecture hall. We had come because of his book, which was a free-wheeling and phantasmagorical and not-entirely-factual account of Moses Harvey and his photograph of a giant squid in his bathtub, and now we were going to hear the story behind the book.

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“This, for me, was a way of doing in prose what I had read about in a poem—” here Matthew Gavin Frank extemporaneously recited several lines of a poem about people staring at an earthquake “—and the poet’s idea of turning your back on that earthquake. I wanted to look at everything else.”

And indeed that is what Preparing the Ghost does. It reads as a fever-dream of a lyrical essay, wavering between relived memories and actual experience, between compacted histories and free-wheeling reality, all of which surround the crucial moment of discovering a giant squid. “I don’t know if Moses Harvey woke up cold and sweating. I do know that he took the first photograph of a giant squid, but I don’t know if it was on a Tuesday,” he confesses early in the book, before deciding: “I am mythmaking, I suppose.”

It is a book so radically inventive and insightful that seeing it published feels like a triumph for the imagination. Frank’s editor at Liveright, Katie Adams, agreed: “What made me really fall in love is how big-hearted it is. Sometimes writers who experiment with form feel to me more intellectual than emotional, but Matt is both in equal parts.” Just listening to the book’s author on stage, instantaneously interweaving anecdotes and poetry and interpretation, had me wondering how such a freewheeling mind had been corralled into a bound text. Editing a book like that would have to be a Herculean feat. Matthew Gavin Frank laughed at the question much later and nodded. “There wasn’t too much to change. Just a couple of parts that dragged on too long. Actually, a bit more color in a couple of spots.”And his editor chimed in: “I was fully onboard with the excursions, asides, lists, riffs, etc., but I wanted to make sure each one was justified and necessary in service of the larger work. I pushed on a few moments to see if Matt felt they were crucial, and in the end some were cut.”

The end result is a gorgeous synthesis of diagrams and memories, metaphors and reportage. It’s wholly sui generis and wholeheartedly endearing—just like the man who was talking to us that evening. After several beers, we were all talking amiably in various groups and the conversation often drifted away from the book and the food to our own lives and projects—but then another tray would come past, laden with slices of cake, and we were talking about Book/Plate again. The fall had already brought Francesco Goldman to Peck’s—and as we looked at Jeff Waxman, a broad grin filling his face, we started guessing at the authors who would pop up in the next year. Geoff Manaugh, the mind behind BLDGBLOG? Heidi Julavits, talking about her newest book-slash-diary? Mark Z. Danielewski sharing gossip about his 880-page behemoth?

By then we had finished and gone to the bar across the street. “Do you miss working on the book?”I asked the author, who was jiggering his cocktail. “I do, a little,” he said, “but I’ve got another book to work on now—and with the book out in the world, I get to share it with you!” He laughed. And then we started talking about the food, again. Book/Plate had been a perfect synthesis of the culinary and the literary—a perfect night that could only have happened in Brooklyn.


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