Le Bain, the sleek club atop The Standard Hotel that’s popular with fashion industry types and socialites, is a strange place to host a book reading; it’s a bit glitzy for the predominately jeans and tennis shoe-clad literary scene. But a little after 11pm on Monday night, any incongruities — including a guy wearing circa-’98 cargo pants — were eclipsed by the sheer charm of PEN Speakeasy, a sometimes bawdy reading about sex. The event punctuated the first night of the PEN World Voices festival, happening at various venues around the city this month. A small number of guests sat on plush leather couches assembled on the dance floor, as writers — Yael Hedaya, Honor Moore, Irvine Welsh, Edmund White, and moderator Katie Halper — read their work beneath the club’s disco ball.
Halper’s opening query set the tone for a night where saucy, explicit talk about sex was de rigueur. (Modest souls, consider yourselves warned.) “How many of you in here have made some mistakes because you’ve had sex?” Halper asked, and the crowd let out a huge laugh in the affirmative. “OK. So I hope we could do this thing together. It’s a purity pledge. Are there any virgins in the room?”
One person raised his hand with a big sarcastic smile (I’d venture to say there have been as few virgins inside Le Bain as there have been cargo pants, and the two categories likely have some overlap).
“I’ll talk to you after,” Halper said. “So how many in here are secondary virgins? And by that I mean, those who engage in promiscuous behavior and wish to commit themselves to lives of purity?”
Most of the room shot up their hands and Edmund White let out an enthusiastic, “Yay!”
“Repeat after me: I re-pledge my purity.”
The audience repeated the line.
“To my father.”
They all uncomfortably said that one, too.
“My future husband…and my creator…I deeply regret and will no longer engage in…sexual activity of any kind before marriage…But will keep my thought and my body pure…as a very special present for the one I marry.”
The writers had been asked to read from a work that they had never read publicly before. Hearing the stories, like Honor Moore’s wonderful, totally inappropriate for any typical reading forum, “The Pink Dress,” it was easy to see why the stories had been kept private.
“But you haven’t told me what you like,” Moore read from a candle-lit podium, hunched over a stack of paper. “Whether you like the word cunt, the word labia? Or if in this circumstance, you prefer the word lips, which, if you translate labia into English is what you get. What my fingers could do to my own cunt is not what his cock had done — what your cock might do. What about that word? Will you allow it? Cock.” She thrust her body forward as she exaggeratedly accented the word’s consonants. “I like how it almost rhymes with fuck and how when I say it I feel the back of my throat open, something that doesn’t happen with other words I might offer. Penis for instance. Or dick.”
At this point, a good deal of the audience got up and went to the bar for a drink.
“Ok let’s take a vote,” Halper said. “You know, PEN really likes democracy. So. Cunt. Who likes the word cunt?”
The audience applauded and cheered. White let out another “yay!”
“It’s really refreshing to be here,” Irvine Welsh said, “And to hear the word ‘cunt’ being used to describe a woman’s genitalia. If you say it to a woman in Scotland, ‘Hey, I really want to see your cunt,’ she’ll say, ‘Well, he’s in prison right now.’”
Welsh, stern-faced and wearing a t-shirt and jeans, read from his book, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, about a protagonist, Danny, who puts a hex on another character, Brian, whom he detests. The hex makes Brian get all of Danny’s hangovers. This prompts a long, physically un-punishing (for Danny anyway) bender that leaves the cursed Brian nearing death. Danny becomes remorseful, so he visits a witch in Scotland to try to reverse the spell. Of course, when he sees the witch she says, “A good cock, son. That’s what I need.” What ensues is the most depraved of sex scenes, filled with “putrefied skin,” the old woman “peeling away at the sagging corrugations of her body until she was able to locate her sex,” and the proclamation: “I thought you’d be bigger.” The audience groaned throughout.
“Maybe next time you can read the uncensored version?” Halper said when it was over.
In a fitting transition, Yael Hedaya, one of the head writers of In Treatment, talked about censorship in television writing in her native Israel. Branding a show with an adults-only rating, “buries it,” Hedaya said. She spoke of a scene in a series she is working on now involving a man and a woman in their thirties lying in bed and passing a joint after having intercourse. The man gets up to leave, picks up the used condom off the ground and ties it in a knot, and begins walking out the door with it. The woman asks him why. The man says he’s worried about having his sperm stolen.
“This is, by the way,” Hedaya said, “a true story a friend told me that happened to her. So the note I got was, ‘Do you mind if we change the joint to a cigarette?’”
White read from the autobiographical Chaos, which he admitted was written quickly because he was broke and wanted to receive “some miserable sum.”
“I have this theory,” he said, “That it’s fun to write about sex, but to make it realistic, you should mix it in with all the other things you do. You shouldn’t quarantine it.”
The scene was of a character named Jack, HIV positive, recently back from France and browsing the “men for men” section of Craigslist. He decides to contact a “27-year-old, 6’3” top,” and pay him to perform fellatio on him. He wonders if the stranger is also positive, but “Jack was convinced no one ever got AIDS from having his dick sucked.”
If orgasm, as Mailer said, is a matter of “opening all possibilities” (if good) or “imprisonment” (if not), then the evening displayed the whole spectrum. Afterward, the crowd raced outside, presumably for a cigarette.