Words About Words 

Joshua Henkin's novel Matrimony celebrates the writing life.

Newly arrived at a small Massachusetts liberal-arts college during the Reagan era, Manhattan rich-kid Julian Wainwright gets a crash course in that scary/exciting space where youth intersects with popular culture and politics, and everything seems to circle back to sex. Some of the guys in his dorm wear skirts. "They're hoping to transcend the boundaries of gender," explains Julian's savvy roommate. "Mostly they're just trying to get laid." Later in Joshua Henkin's new novel Matrimony, an attractive representative from Peer Contraceptive Counseling visits the dorm to demonstrate the use of dental dams and spermicide. Squirting some of the latter onto her finger, she tastes it, then passes it around for others to sample. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she reassures the gathered students. "It's fruit flavor. It's meant to be eaten."

Aspiring-writer Julian makes friends and falls in love. Then comes the marriage for which this novel — new in paperback, set partly in Berkeley, and cited by The New York Times as one of last year's top hundred — is named. Henkin reads from it at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on October 23. Like Julian, Henkin grew up in New York City with intellectual parents. His mother, who attended Bryn Mawr College and Yale Law School, is a secular Jew; his father, who teaches law at Columbia, is devout: "I am the product of these varied backgrounds," Henkin reflects, "and of this happy marriage." In nursery school, Henkin didn't know who Santa Claus was: "A boy of four, living in one of the biggest cities in the world, who doesn't know who Santa Claus is. These are what I like to call 'pleasing contradictions,' and they are, it seems to me, the lifeblood of a fiction writer."

These days, at Sarah Lawrence College, he teaches creative writing to students very much like Julian and his own younger self. "When I tell my students that they need to find conflict in their stories, I'm really telling them to look for the pleasing contradictions, since contradiction is what makes fiction interesting, what allows a writer to explore character." Henkin spent ten years writing Matrimony, discarding thousands of pages in the process. Its protagonist becomes a novelist; Julian's wife, Mia, spends part of the book struggling to complete a psychology dissertation. Thus Henkin spent ten years writing ... about writing. Many scenes are set in writing classes, writing workshops, and at desks in quiet rooms as writers strive to write. "Although Matrimony isn't autobiographical, it's about things that are close to me," the author asserts. "It's about the writing life. And it's about ... college towns, those places where time feels suspended, when you're in your twenties and thirties, when the decisions you make have consequences you aren't even aware of yet, when, without your realizing it, you're reaching the cusp of middle age." 7:30 p.m. MrsDalloways.com

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