Talk (New York Review Books, 2015) by Linda Rosenkrantz
by Esmé Hogeveen
During the summer of 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz taped conversations between her friends, participants in the New York art scene, in East Hampton. Transcriptions of these oral exchanges comprise the content of Talk, which is made up entirely of dialogue and structured much like a play. The chapters mostly self-contained vignettes with titles like “Marsha and Vincent on the Beach,” “Emily and Marsha Compare Childhood Traumata” and “Marsha and Emily Talk About Nathan, Philippe, Andy Warhol and Nancy Drew” – chronicle Marsha, Emily and Vincent’s relationships with each other, as well as their attitudes towards sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and their attempts at pursuing and derailing existential contentment by experimenting with creative processes and interpersonal relationships in the infamous 1960s New York
Given the potential for its risqué content to incite controversy, Rosenkrantz initially struggled to find a publisher. Eventually, when Talk was first published in 1968, it was marketed as a work of fiction rather than source material from the author’s own life. Only subsequently – and perhaps most explicitly as part of the rebranding project that accompanied the New York Review Books’ reissuing of Talk this past July – has Rosenkrantz been extolled for using audio recordings and transcription methods to explore the protean boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. In acknowledging Rosenkrantz’s role in developing the chimerical genre of experimental autobiography, a mode of writing that has continued relevance within the interconnected worlds of art and literary criticism well into the 21st century, the implicit feminist concerns of Talk inevitably come to mind. Indeed, Rosenkrantz foregrounds the female first-person as a position that involves perpetually anticipating dispute. There is something remarkable, then, about reading transcriptions of the voices of two women, as well as that of a gay man, who are speaking their minds within a self-appointed space. Marsha, Emily and Vincent’s questioning of their own and the others’ perspectives, and the translation of the resulting moments of tenderness, conflict and introspection into print, provides a refreshing counterpoint to the ongoing editing techniques germane to many forms of contemporary digital media.
In coverage of Talk’s re-publication, the book is often portrayed as a progenitor of dialogue-based, semi-confessional documents of young – and typically also white, urban and upwardly mobile – female experience. The recently reissued version features an introduction by writer Stephen Koch, who reflects on Rosenkrantz’s categorization as a forebear of Lena Dunham, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and other artists engaged with adult coming-of-age narratives. Koch makes no bones about the impetus for marketing Talk to a contemporary audience: “This ‘reality’ novel is a small founding classic which provides a model for television series like Girls and Broad City and all the many novels and series like them that focus on the primacy of non romantic peer relationships. It is filled with the same raw talk between independent women friends that gives those series their crackle of excitement.”1
The comparisons Koch draws between Talk and Girls and Broad City reflect another aspect of the book’s commercial appeal: its chronicling of the uncertainty and fraught passions of individuals in their mid- to late twenties living in New York City. As Rosenkrantz was a member of the muchvaunted 1960s art scene, the recorded conversations between the writer “Marsha” (a pseudonym for Rosenkrantz), the actress “Emily” and the painter “Vincent” (Emily and Vincent’s real identities remain a mystery2) provide unique insight into the social mores and identity politics of an epoch whose resonance lingers today.
It would be reductive, however, to laud Talk simply on the basis of its representation of an oft-fetishized moment in western culture. Though the promise of an insider’s take on soirées attended by Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter and Andy Warhol presents an undeniable allure, interpreting Talk as an (albeit experimental) archival object overlooks the poignancy of Rosenkrantz’s formal undertaking. In recording, transcribing and editing conversations between herself and two friends, Rosenkrantz created a living object that exists selfconsciously within a broader cultural history. To value Talk merely as a primary record risks ignoring Rosenkrantz’s more insistent project of examining how experiences themselves are always made and unmade – understood, challenged and reinterpreted – according to how they
are articulated in the present. Reading Talk today thereby compels one to re-evaluate the implications of social and political conversations occurring in real life versus online contexts.
In the end, it seems fitting that Talk’s setting is summertime, a season known equally for igniting passion and stoking ennui. The artists whose dialogue comprises Talk are at least semi-aware that contemplating their (self-proclaimed) successes and failures could be perceived as indulgent. However, Marsha, Emily and Vincent are unconcerned with audience reaction. Talk is not reality television nor a series with content that reflects viewer response; it is a testament to conversation itself. The characters are self-conscious. They worry aloud about fulfilling their aspirations, about whether finding meaning and love are synonymous, or even congruent, pursuits. In short, they are humans who have been captured in a series of intimate, verbal still lifes. The resulting narrative thus stands in contrast to the kind of direct engagements with an externalized audience that characterize contemporary confessional work.
As readers of Talk, we are provided rare access to a thorough, yet unforced, examination of friendship taken up as a project unto itself. As Marsha comments to Emily, “I get a very scary feeling sometimes that I’m pushing myself into a corner – all of a sudden I’m beginning to find everyone except you and Vinnie very dull. We’ve set up such a stimulating, total, free, hysterical, intimate, intense relationship that I find it impossible to relate to other people, they leave me completely cold.”3 While the reader intuits that this intensity cannot persist indefinitely, we observe Rosenkrantz/Marsha and her friends noting this as well. Ultimately, we encounter Talk as a testament to conversation as a means of revealing the intersections between art and life, candour and self-awareness, and the ways in which these facets of modern life influence human relationships and critical thinking