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Humor Came Her

As a new collection shows, Veronica Geng was among the funniest writers of her generation. When she died, the New York literary world lost one of its most alluring (and difficult) figures.

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The day after Veronica Geng lost consciousness and collapsed in her tiny apartment on the Upper East Side, Roy Blount Jr. went to visit her in the hospital and found her lying on a gurney in the hallway, doped up and waiting for a CT scan. She brightened when she saw him, waved, and summoned a woozy smile. "I think a blue jay dropped an acorn in my brain," she said. In fact, the tumor was much larger than an acorn by then. After seeing the results of the scan, Richard Fraser, the neurosurgeon-in-chief at New York Hospital, took Geng aside and explained: She had a grapefruit-size mass on her right temporal lobe. It had all the implacable signs of being malignant. She required immediate surgery, plus a rigorous follow-up program of radiation and chemotherapy, if she could handle it. Geng started to shake. How much pain would she be in? Less than she probably imagined, he told her. Would she lose her hair? Possibly. And was she going to die? Fraser hesitated. His patient was 55 years old, single, and without health insurance since her abrupt departure four years earlier from The New Yorker, where she'd been an influential editor and one of the magazine's more idiosyncratic writers. And she'd just told him she felt terrified and lonely. So he dodged the question. He told her that all of us die. "I sensed she didn't want an honest answer," Fraser explains, a trifle uneasily. "One of the worst things you can do to a patient is remove their hope." Geng, whose corkscrew imagination and steeply angled worldview sometimes prevented her from seeing situations for what they really were, this time seemed to understand what her doctor was trying to tell her. She responded by doing something none of her friends would ever see her do, not once over the course of a thirteen-month illness: She cried. Geng died on Christmas Eve, 1997, as tough a cancer patient as she was a writer and editor. A onetime boyfriend and longtime confidant, the photographer James Hamilton, organized the memorial at a funeral parlor in Little Italy whose neo-Corleone décor would surely have appealed to Geng's perverse sense of humor. It was attended mostly by New Yorker people and literary celebrities, including Blount, Calvin Trillin, Jamaica Kincaid, and Philip Roth. No one presided. No one knew whether it was appropriate to speak. Some weren't even sure whether Geng would have wanted them there.

"After the burial, some of us were exchanging dates when she'd stopped speaking to us," recalls Kincaid. "It was kind of like a club." The outspoken novelist also marched up to Mark Singer, one of Geng's former lovers and still a staff writer at The New Yorker. "I want you to go back to the office," she commanded, "and tell Tina Brown that she, personally, killed Veronica."

He didn't, of course. But Kincaid's interesting accusation did have a kind of metaphorical potency. Geng began working for The New Yorker in 1976, when the magazine still valiantly published epic monographs about orange crops, and the office still felt like a dysfunctional faculty lounge, with William Shawn as the presiding dean. Writers considered Geng one of the magazine's most skilled and intuitive fiction editors. Frederick Barthelme, Milan Kundera, William Trevor, Tom Drury, and James McCourt all flourished under her care, and Philip Roth entrusted her with almost everything he wrote, both for The New Yorker and beyond.

But New Yorker readers knew Geng as a writer of arch, onion-layered humor pieces, a genre known internally as "casuals." Geng's were anything but. "They felt as if they were created in a laboratory or an institute for advanced studies," says Kurt Andersen, a current New Yorker writer and former editor-in-chief of Spy (and of this magazine). "They were funny, but they seemed like a mathematical achievement."

Like George W.S. Trow and Harold Brodkey, Geng was one of the writers Shawn hired during the sixties and seventies whose work was extravagantly intelligent but not always intelligible -- "extreme writers," as his successor, Robert Gottlieb, so aptly called them, who would require time and faith to develop a constituency. Shawn's confidence in them was tantamount to tenure at a university, allowing, in Geng's case, a kind of academic jauntiness to bloom during an era when smart-ass humor otherwise prevailed. While National Lampoon was running boisterous essays on the virtues of snorting coke while driving, Geng was doing high-concept pieces about military spending and Chairman Mao. While Spy was snacking on vulgarian overdogs like Donald Trump and Madonna, Geng was holding forth on staphylococcus germs.

"She really embodied this idea of a commitment to a writer," says Andersen. "And God, what any writer wouldn't give for that kind of commitment now. I think The New Yorker under Shawn was the last moment when that existed in commercial magazines."

That commitment, in Geng's view, disappeared once Tina Brown took over The New Yorker in September 1992. Four months later, Geng was out of a job.


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