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.
“You might have noticed there’s four of us and there’s no moderator,” said Lev Grossman, sitting at a slightly elevated table with Charles Bock, Laura Miller and Glenn Kenny at the Strand last Friday. The writers were present for a panel on David Foster Wallace’s post-humous The Pale King, which was pieced together by Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch following the author’s death in 2008. “We had a discussion earlier about how we should go, and I think we decided we should just go. We will go through a tornadic structure,” Grossman said, employing a word Wallace used to describe his own novel, which he was working on when he hanged himself in his garage.
When writers talk about Wallace, they seem to become more protective than with other novelists. The reviews of The Pale King (four in the New York Times alone over the span of two weeks) — which have been mostly very positive — have also expressed a certain amount of betrayal, as if by a close friend. “Part of my reaction to The Pale King is an echo of the reaction I had when I learned of D.F.W.’s suicide,” Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire, as one example. “Something along the lines of: Oh, come on! Why’d he do that? Really? I wish he hadn’t done that. Why’d he do that? I’m not including this here because I think this is some kind of profound reaction. I’m including it because if you read The Pale King, this is a reaction you can expect to have often.” The uncomfortable subtext is, “How could you leave us before finishing your novel?” This notion is frequently followed by ceding to the idea that the book is the ultimate meta-commentary, the author’s premature death itself a kind of interpretive act making sense of the massive plot holes and deliberate structural endlessness of his previous work, Infinite Jest, that makes an accidentally unfinished novel the culmination of Wallace’s considerable oeuvre.
To say what the novel is about, beyond that it comprehensively follows the suffering of the agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Il, would be impossible. It is filled less with an advancing narrative than a mountain of words arranged in a loop with no progression but a beautiful shape. There are painfully simple, dream-like portraits of landscape (“the angle of the sun made the water of the shallows look dark”), a bafflingly descriptive command of simile (“men whose faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing”), and trickster postmodern devices, such as a character named David Wallace, who, in a paratextual author’s preface interrupts — more like “jumps into” as “interruption” implies development — the narrative to say, “Author here…All of this is true.” (The validity of which is complicated by the fact that the particular chapter in question marks the first appearance of Wallace’s characteristic footnotes.)
“I want to know what people think about the presence of David Wallace in this book,” Grossman said at the panel. “I felt frustrated. I really thought to myself, is this a game you’re playing? And do you really think this is a game? I didn’t have the patience for it.”
“It’s an interesting question,” said Bock, talking slow and rubbing his face in contemplation. “The first time he breaks in as ‘authorial voice guy’ comes after an ungodly good piece of writing that deals with a character of a young girl and her and her mom are on the run. And it’s vivid and it’s one of those original voices where he has this very earthy landscape and it’s just breathtaking. That’s the shit.”
“It’s amazing!” Grossman interrupted. “And it could be an accident of Pietschian ordering, but coming right after this moment where you really care about these characters and then he comes out and says you know this is all a game. It’s fiction.”
“Well that was what I was trying to say,” Bock said through an exhale. “The next section after that we get ‘OK here’s a metafictional moment.’ Here’s the author popping the balloon of Wallace. And we don’t know what it will come to. There seems to be a reason for it to be in there. But it doesn’t seem to justify itself.”
“But it’s right there!” said Kenny, who published Wallace’s essay on the porn industry, “Big Red Sun,” in Premiere. “It’s there on page 73: ‘Plus there’s the autobiographical fact that, like so many other very nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an “artist,” i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike. My specific dream was of becoming an immortally great fiction writer à la Gaddis or Andersen, Balzac or Perec.’
Bock took off his glasses and rubbed his face harder this time. “I, uh, I, uh hear,” he said through his teeth, “And I was gonna try to, uh, get to the idea Wallace was coming from — when he grew up, the idea of him being influenced by the kind of first generation of postmodernism. But you don’t know how the theme would have played out in this book for different reasons.”
“But it’s also Balzac and Andersen in there!” Kenny said.
“Well, yes. Here’s one of the things I was gonna try to look for in my own discursive way: We now have reached a point where Infinite Jest was a big deal. It went against notions of popular entertainment. There is an idea to Wallace’s work that’s like, look I’m gonna throw the whole fucking sink at you. I’m gonna give you the best language because I know more words than everyone else. It’s gonna be the longest sentences that are gonna be so good that when you get done with one three page sentence it’s gonna be like the best cake you’ve ever eaten and as you start the next bite you’re gonna be hungry all over again. And the reader has to be involved. That’s so at odds with the way that people live now, and the amount of work that people are willing to do — that most of us are willing to do in just about anything, let alone a book, a fiction book, a novel, a fantasy. You know just tell me how he gets the fucking golden goblet and move on. Give me a dragon. When 900 writers adopt this metafictional idea our patience for it changes. In this book, there’s a very intense 70-page section that is as turgid as that fucking pillar that also probably wasn’t working. I don’t know how it would have worked out.”
The conversations about the novel are, naturally, as fractured as the book itself. No one can know how it would have worked out, but that frustration is part of the pleasure of reading The Pale King, a book that endlessly speculates on its author’s intentions, the frustratingly final word on a singularly brilliant mind, cut-off in the middle of a sentence with no beginning or end.
Midway through an epic question and answer session at last night’s Rolling Stone/Long Reads panel on long-form journalism, Jeff Goodell, author of last year’s How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, shared an anecdote about his reporting technique.
While covering an AIDS convention in Montreal as a novice reporter, Goodell said, he’d been assigned to profile a health commissioner who wouldn’t return his calls. So Goodell pieced together the commissioner’s probable travel plans, and then called airlines asking for his flight information. “I’ve got a friend who has a surprise birthday,” he told the airline’s customer service line. “Can you please tell me what flight he’s on?”
It took several dozen tries before a sympathetic customer service rep — who might have recently enjoyed a surprise party himself, Goodell supposed — spilled the commissioner’s flight number. Goodell booked himself on the flight and requested an adjacent seat. “I was so happy, but I got to the airport and he’s standing in line and I’m in line, and thought, oh fuck, I can’t do this” Goodell recounted. “So I walked up to him and I said, ‘I called the airline, I got seated next to you and I’m sorry, I’ll move away.’ He just looked at me with this dead-level stare and said, ‘I admire your guts. Come on!’ ” They ended up having dinner together when they reached their destination, and Goodell had his profile.
It was something of a rockstar move for a reporter, and to the over-capacity crowd at Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, the panelists may as well have been rockstars themselves. Fueled by the recent rise of Long Reads and other online aggregators, lengthy professional journalism is enjoying a flurry of new appreciation, not least by the denizens of Twitter who participated in their own piecemeal reportage throughout the lecture (see also: #RSreads).
The panelists, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said by way of introduction, represented the “three legs” the iconic music magazine is built on –deep news reporting, nuanced celebrity profiles, and authoritative rock criticism. Goodell — “the only Rolling Stone writer who has never actually met a rockstar” — is a contributing editor who’s written on technology, crime, and environmental issues. He was joined by Rob Sheffield, also a contributing editor, who writes about music, TV, and pop culture, and has authored the books Love is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Brian Hiatt, a senior writer Dana called the magazine’s “go-to cover story writer.”
In the name of storytelling, Dana invited each panelist to share their “most Almost Famous moment,” which evoked images of Goodell getting beaten up by coal miners, Britney Spears dissing her own record to Sheffield (after he gave it a rave), and Bono resting his head in Hiatt’s lap. Reminiscing about the good old days of truly long-form rock-and-roll journalism, the panel brought the audience to hysterics riffing on a hyperbolic Jackson Five profile with a 1,000-word lede about the taxi ride to the studio and a 50,000 word piece about Santana that detailed the geneology of the drummer’s family.
Dana then directed the discussion to the role of long-form journalism in a short-attention span society.
“People want a beginning, a middle, and an end. They want context,” said Goodell in response to a question about whether the abundance of raw information — a la WikiLeaks — threatens the endeavors of journalism outright. “There’s a human need to hear stories, it’s a very satisfying way to get information. Whether that medium is an article or television or a movie or some kind of three-month long Twitter feed, it doesn’t matter.”
Dana concurred, remarking that the breakneck pace of the contemporary news cycle means details will always slip through the cracks as a media consensus is formed almost immediately around the narrative.
“I’m worried about whether we are going to have enough chewing tobacco ads because that pays the bills — but I’m not worried about the enterprise of journalism,” he said. “In a world where there’s endless amounts of information, there’s an even greater need for quality information, where you have analysis and access and great writing and great editing and great packaging.”
For a solid hour, audience members raised questions. Would RollingStone.com “pull a New York Times” and charge readers to view stories? (Yes, it has and will.) What’s the place of first-person writing in narrative journalism? (“Hunter S. Thompson could do it, that doesn’t mean everyone can.”). And where, exactly, were the female long-form writers? Especially on this panel? (“We expected that someone would ask that question,” Dana stammered. “I don’t have a great answer for it.”)
Even as some in the audience seemed skeptical about the future of long-form journalism in an increasingly digitized world, the panelists, for their part, were optimistic.
“A great story is a great story. The platform matters but it’s not the most important thing,” Dana said. “The important thing is the story can’t be bland and it can’t suck. If something is great, people will want to read it, and they’ll read it whether it’s on the Web or in the magazine.”
Jaimy Gordon won the 2010 National Book Award for her masterpiece Lord of Misrule, and, despite the obligatory New York Times review and profile after the fact, she is still hardly known. In a bit of good timing, the novel, which takes place in a crumbling West Virginia horseracing track, Indian Mound Downs, was nominated for the NBA the same week it was published. Before receiving the award, there were reviews by Jane Smiley in the Washington Post, in the trade magazine Daily Racing Form — “Little-known Author Produces Gem of a Racing Novel” — and nowhere else. (Who can say what obscurity Lord of Misrule would have wallowed in had it been published in, say, February instead of November?) At a reading last week at McNally Jackson, the 25 or so chairs, about one quarter empty, were a frustrating testament to Gordon’s undeserved anonymity.
“I’m not drawn to the racetrack because I’m a moralist,” Gordon, 66, told the small audience in a straight, unemotional voice. She is skinny and tall with a crown of frizzy hair, certain strands falling over her pale face, which is also covered by a pair of large spectacles. Indeed, there is hardly a hint of morality throughout Ms. Gordon’s disturbing fourth novel.
Lord of Misrule is separated into four sections, each concentrating on a different claiming race, which means that when an owner enters his horse into a race for a fee—$1500 at Indian Mound Downs—the horse is being put up for sale at that price. Naturally this creates a network of deception. More expensive horses are put in the inexpensive races at long odds; fledgling horses are bought and sold and bought back like cheap drugs.
“Nothing could be more disorderly,” Gordon said at the reading, “than a racetrack, especially a cheap racetrack where everybody is trying to take advantage, everybody is trying to fool everyone else. It’s the lying capital of the world, but everyone is doing it. None of that is written in the rulebook.”
Just as the racetrack is chaos incarnate, Gordon’s novel effectively throws out literary convention. The structure is not linear but more of a coil. There is no real progression (though the pace of Gordon’s writing is as quick as a horse out of the gate) because there is no lesson learned, no moral. We are never quite sure who is alive or dead by the end of each race, or whether certain scenes are some imagined psychosis. We are rarely even aware of what time of day it is (with sentences like, “Neither of them has much future, even if they never ran into trouble like this,” Gordon’s writing always suggests blackest night). The pages themselves are a splattering of text, with many of the visual cues a reader takes as guidance through a narrative — notably in Gordon’s case, quotation marks—missing.
But part of the story’s ambiguousness comes from the reader’s unwillingness to believe the events are part of any story, even a fictional one. Indian Mound Downs is like hell itself has sprouted out of the West Virginia panhandle and come to take vengeance on a people led astray: Tommy Hansel a psychotic drifter who comes to the track to make money fast then skip town; his girlfriend, the maternal Maggie Koderer, intelligent and sexy, but in way over her head; Medicine Ed, the 72-year old groom who has lived and worked at the tracks since he was six, using voodoo powders on a horse to make him win, only for the horse to—invariably—die shortly after. The horses are cheap and malnourished, the grounds of the track are scattered with heaps of manure, and people subject one another to the same kind of brutal punishment as the animals in the story, quite literally: They are bound and chained to stables, fed doses of acepromazine; even physically they resemble animals more than human beings. Take this passage, a mostly joyless sex scene between Tommy and Maggie that reads more like a murder, but still manages to be alluring:
In an almost soothing gesture his fingers circled her wrist, his thumb pressed deep into her palm, curled it, flattened it again, brought the hand down behind her, and suddenly he was binding both her hands together with the leather shank, then the chain. She heard the double-end snap. He had hooked her to the wall…He held his palm over her mouth, and she thought more than said: Yes. No. Yes.
Compare that with the warm, romantic language Gordon uses to describe Maggie’s first encounter with one of the horses, Pelter:
His shoes screeked on the diamond frets of the aluminum ramp and she pressed her hand on the warm rump to steady it, raising a hand-shaped dust mark on the velvety nap…Dark bay, a dense nut brown with black mane, black ear points and tail, and gleaming black knees, ankles and feet. She liked especially the shallow, faintly darker gulley that deepened over his spine just above the tail, dividing the hindquarters into plum-like lobes. Now she pushed her nose into his hip and smelled him.
One could interchange the horses for the humans in the novel and end up with a book that is no less troubling. Which is to say, all significance goes back to the racetrack but the racetrack serves as a metonymy for the world at large. Lord of Misrule is not an easy book to read—no novel that jumps back and forth so nonchalantly between sadism and pleasure could be—but it deserves to pull Gordon up from the inattention she has suffered in her 30-year career. By focusing on a seemingly insignificant group of individuals Gordon unearths all the evil, and some of the good, people are capable of.
“I do think I see good and evil wrestling with each other all the time,” Gordon told her audience, more casually than the statement called for. “I don’t find my way to a comforting final answer. The whole idea of luck and fortune is very double, cyclical, turn this inside out, and it’s the other kind of idea. It’s the way that I feel about horseracing and I suppose about life in general. It asks so much of us. We’ll die. If we try too hard while we’re alive, we’ll die of that. And that’s what we ask of horses all the time. On the one hand I can see that it’s cruel and tragic, on the other hand I love it. It’s beauty to me.”
It was a crisp, sunny spring afternoon in New York — worrisome weather for anyone hoping to gather a crowd in a dark and dingy bar basement. But as it turned out, a blue sky was no deterrent for the several dozen who collected on bar stools and ottomans in the candle-lit bowels of the Lower East Side dive Cake Shop last Saturday. They had come for the March installment of the Enclave Reading Series, guest-curated by Dale Peck and Joshua Furst, cofounders of the nascent indie publishing collective Mischief + Mayhem, a de facto imprint of the fastidiously curated print-on-demand/e-book publisher OR Books.
On tap were Lisa Dierbeck and DW Gibson — who, along with with The Awl’s Choire Sicha, round out Mischief + Mayhem’s founders’ circle — as well as Bingham Bryant, a former intern for the group.
“Mischief + Mayhem is starting a publishing revolution in New York right now,” said Enclave organizer Jason Napoli Brooks, bathing in the glow of white Christmas lights that dangled from the ceiling above the stage. “And from what we hear, it’s going well.”
Well enough, at least, to have successfully rolled out one title since its founding last September — Dierbeck’s The Autobiography of Jenny X, a novel about a suburban housewife whose privileged picket-fence existence begins to unravel when a “radical peace activist” she once knew is released from prison. In a minute deviation from the spirit of OR and Mischief + Mayhem’s unofficial motto, “No book printed until it’s sold,” there were three copies — $9 each; marked down $7 from the online price — available for purchase in the back of the room.
“Sales have been good, though of course we’d like to sell more,” Peck told Bookish this week. (He declined to specify how many copies of M+M’s inaugural title they’ve moved.) “We’re kind of ecstatic with the results so far. We’ve been getting a great response from just about everyone. People in the industry seem hungry — or maybe just desperate — for something new.” Which isn’t to say Mischief + Mayhem has HarperCollins on its knees just yet. Other than Peck’s own The Garden of Lost and Found, forthcoming this summer, there aren’t any more titles currently in the pipeline at the moment. “At this point we’re just doing books one at a time as learn the ins and outs of our publishing model,” Peck said. “Turns out running a publishing company is harder than we thought.”
Even if “revolution” is a tad strong, OR and Mischief+Mayhem — separate companies who collaborate on a book-to-book basis — are intent on taking mainstream publishing to task for its technical inefficiency and obsession with market demand over literature supply. Cutting out overhead expenditures will, in theory, afford writers generous royalties, as well as the possibility of maybe, just maybe, earning a decent wage off their writing, the founders hope.
Business model aside, M+M is also pushing an aesthetic agenda. “We recognize that there are readers who want to be challenged instead of placated,” the manifesto on the collective’s Web site reads. Its affinity is for work — fiction, for the time-being, but Peck says nonfiction isn’t off the table altogether —that’s “formally inventive, socially irresponsible, and sometimes just plain reckless.”
It’s an art-driven doctrine not at all unlike that of the gritty downtown DIY lit reading scene, which still flourishes in spite of the state of commercial fiction, fed by New York’s ubiquitous MFA programs and naturally regenerative stream of ambitious young writers.
The five-year-old Enclave, one of many regular series that overtake the city’s bars and clubs on off-hours, has garnered a reputation for pairing under-the-radar voices with established but off-the-beaten-path names. Helmed by Brooks, Jim Freed, and Scott Geiger, all New School MFA alums (disclosure: I am one as well, and I took a class there with Peck), it relocated to the Cake Shop basement in 2009 from Bleeker Street mainstay Kenny’s Castaways, where, according to Freed, the occasional drunk passersby wandered in off the street and heckled the readers.
Saturday’s crowd was nothing if not polite. Nor did anyone there seem to mind the conspicuous lack of Vitamin D. “I’m always happiest on a sunny day being in a dark cave like this,” a black-clad Dierbeck quipped as she took the stage. “I’m happy to see there are other people who are weird like me.” She proceeded to share a rather dark passage from Jenny X in which a teenage girl helps lures a pair of cops into sex play. “Nothing functioned there in that factory on the Gowanus Canal quite as it was supposed to,” she read. “Cops took prank phone calls from strangers and delivered themselves to the door like pizza boys, like call girls.”
Bryant, in a red plaid button-down, had kicked off the reading with his cryptic short story, “A Visitor,” which centers around its male protagonist’s suddenly incessant face twitch, “a slight quivering on the end of my chin that periodically turns into a throb.” Gibson, who directs the Ledig House writer’s colony in Hudson, New York, and a writers’ residency program in India, went second. He read the first chapter of his yet-to-be-published novel, An All-American Field Guide to the Outside World, affecting a Southern drawl to animate the story’s college-aged narrator, an aspiring “Christian metal god, and if that falls through, a preacher.” The assembled listeners chuckled throughout.
As the reading concluded, Freed brandished a black plastic bag. “The Enclave believes in trying to pay our writers, so if you have a dollar or two—or five—to spare, we’d love it if you could put it in this shady black bodega bag,” he proclaimed, fishing in his own pocket before passing it to an audience member.
After months of delivering piece after stellar piece for Bookish, the amazing Gillian Reagan is leaving the blog to concentrate on her full-time job as editor at Capital New York. We’re very sad to see her go, of course, but we wish her the best!
We’re also excited to announce that Bookish will continue to cover books with two very talented new contributors:
Jessanne Collins is an editor at Out. She is a former Harvard Book Store bookseller and a graduate of the New School’s creative writing MFA program. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Awl, The Morning News, Radar, The Millions, and other publications.
Michael H. Miller writes for The New York Observer and NPR. His latest piece was on publisher John O’Brien. He lives in Brooklyn.
Jessanne and Michael will pick up where Gillian left off — covering book events, conducting interviews, and writing short profiles and analysis.
Look for the first post next Thursday!
Freelance science journalist Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, is the kind of non-fiction work that gets people talking. It certainly did back in November 2005, when Foer, the youngest of the literary clan of Foer brothers, got a book contract for $1.2 million and a subsequent film option. On March 15, at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street and Broadway in New York, people gathering for Foer’s reading of the book were seemingly ignorant of the book contract, or at least they didn’t talk about it. They were, rather, excited to hear Foer’s quest to train for the U.S. Memory Championship, which takes place each spring in New York. He won the competition in 2006.
“What have you memorized?” said a man in his 40s sitting next to me. He had read the book and recited a few names of the bones in the skull, showing off his new-found skills. A woman with Cruella de Vil hair style — lightning white in a blunt cut — admitted she hadn’t finished the book yet, and spent a good five minutes fishing through her purse, wool coat and even her husband’s coat, looking for her glasses, before realizing they were on her head. A bespectacled man who looked to be in his 50s — Nike running sneakers, zip-up nylon sweater — arrived an hour before the reading, and kept calling his girlfriend, reminding her of the event and where he had saved her a seat. Perhaps she forgot what time they were supposed to meet.
At the reading, Foer insists that Moonwalking with Einstein isn’t a self-help book. It isn’t. It’s a breezy, accessible read that allows us into this young reporter’s adventures — and thinking process — as he improves his memory, studies ancient memory techniques and meets wonderful characters from all over the world with fascinating brains. We discover along with him how memory works, why it sometimes doesn’t work, and what its potential might be.
Foer began his quest in 2005 as a Slate journalist, attending the U.S. Memory Championship in 2005. There, the contestants told him there was nothing special about their brains: They just learned a bunch of tricks to help them do things like memorize a deck of cards or recite an entire poem by heart. Outside the competition, Foer met Ed Cooke, one of Britain’s best trained memories, who eventually became his coach.
“He was smoking a cigarette and he said, ‘You’re a journalist, do you know Britney Spears?’ Foer recalled at the Barnes & Noble reading.
‘I was like, no, I don’t know Britney Spears.’
‘I’d really like to teach Britney Spears how to memorize a deck of cards on U.S. television. It’ll prove to the world that anybody can do it.’
‘Well, I don’t know Britney Spears, but maybe you could start with me. You have to start somewhere.’” And so off Foer went: 23, curious, and geeky.
Foer used techniques developed in around 477 B.C. by Greek poet Simonides, building “memory palaces” full of scenery and characters to help people remember poems and lists. The practice was ingrained in classical education until the printing press was invented.
Why memorize when books and, today, the Internet and our phones, could hold information for us? Poetry and novel memorization wasn’t just an educational pursuit to philosophers. It informed personality — its characters, their struggles, and the lessons they learned, became ingrained in hearts and souls, and could inform a person’s decision-making. It would make them better people.
Today, reading takes all kinds of forms and some argue the text simply flies from people’s minds — never informing them since they are on to the next piece of text without a second thought.
In his book, Tony Buzan, a kind of guru of the mind, tells Foer: “The reason for the monitored decline in human memory performance is because we actually do anti-Olympic training. What we do to the brain is the equivalent of sitting someone down to train for the Olympics and making sure he drinks ten cans of beer a day, smokes 50 cigarettes, drives to work, and maybe does some exercise once a month that’s violent and damaging, and spends the rest of the time watching television.”
How can we possibly store all of the novels, magazine articles, emails, text messages and Twitter tweets in our minds? Does today’s reading make us better people?
Foer doesn’t have an answer or a concrete solution in his book. It’s a highly enjoyable read, but ultimately has a sad ending, because of this fact.
He writes that although all kinds of memory techniques can help competitors recite hundreds of numbers in pi, they don’t necessarily help people remember why they went to the fridge, or where they parked their car or when their wife’s birthday is. It doesn’t solve more serious conditions like Alzheimer’s. But it can teach a person to remember to remember.
Foer writes: “If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.” So that is to say, savor every moment in life, and maybe re-visit a few of those beloved characters and stories long forgotten on your bookshelf.
When the man sitting next to me at the reading asked what I memorized, I told him, “I’m not sure yet, I’ll have to re-read the book.”
“I feel like a salesman,” said novelist Gary Shteyngart on stage at the 92Y’s Kaufman Concert Hall Monday night. “Don’t stop reading!”
Shteyngart, dressed in a black suitjacket, light blue-button down shirt and fading back jeans, was pitching to an audience of bespectacled late-20 somethings and graying 92Y regulars, some of whom brought small notebooks to record his wisdoms on reading and writing, as well as those of another celebrated author Victor LaValle, who read from his 2009 novel Big Machine. As for Shteyngart, he had just read from his well-praised recent book Super Sad True Love Story, which takes place in dystopian future where reading books is nearly non-existent, save for in the hands of his protagonist, an aging schlub who is seen as a luddite by his peers. Today, in the real world, there have been hundreds of studies and over-wrought magazine articles about the “end of reading”– how young people are living like cyborg receivers picking up blips of data from Twitter and their iPhones and changing their brain hardwiring by abandoning books. Shteyngart and LaValle were asked by an audience member what young people are missing out on by not reading literature.
“We live in a culture of endless self-expression,” Shteyngart said. “There’s more writers than readers. Because we all want to be the hero or the heroine of the video game screen, we all want to express ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
But reading offers a moment outside of those digitally traffic-jammed byways in our brains, according to Shteyngart. It’s a vacation — or, more accurately, an escape — from the static of the mind. “You’re giving up your personality for a little while — it goes away — and you begin to enter the consciousness of another human being. It’s a quiet time. Everything slows down around you, in a way it doesn’t when you’re looking at a screen. And you start to understand, and maybe you don’t like the person, whose mind you’re entering, but there you are. The gates are open. And you can live inside that mind for a while. And perhaps, if it’s a writer with some skill, you can develop empathy for something you’d never thought you could develop empathy for.”
“If that goes away and we’re reduced to little spurts of information popping up across a screen, sort of information that don’t tell us much about the mind of the person who created them, but that certainly compels us to do something or think in a certain way or be a certain kind of person, something that we’re not already, I think that’s a huge loss. And I begin to worry about that. And so I wrote a book about that.”
Shteyngart admitted that he is a pessimist, but after traveling across the country for book readings, which were attended by many “of whom are young, under 74 years old and still enjoy literature,” he said. “That has inspired me to keep writing.”
As for Mr. LaValle, dressed in another salesman’s outfit — a slightly more colorful one with a brown suit jacket over a blue and white pinstriped shirt and a graphic tie with tropic pinks, reds and blues brushed across it — he is more optimistic. “Sometimes change can seem like loss to those people who aren’t changing,” he said. “I just don’t know that the reports of the demise of everything are always [accurate]. I sort of imagine that even single cell animals wish for the days when things were simpler. There’s never a future in that.”
Read Justin Taylor’s words and you might feel them. In the vivid opening chapter of his first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial, $13.99), it’s the summer of 1999 and we’re introduced to David, a young Gainesville, Fla. dropout who sits in a phone survey office, among the “green depths” of computer screens in cubicle stations, headset and script readied for conversations with lonely Early Birds and the unemployed about their buying habits. Feel the “heat of the machines through our pantlegs,” the throat choke while talking to a widow who can no longer drive herself. A dry, white-noise sensation might creep under your skin, as if its baking under florescent lighting. When David returns home to an empty apartment, where he has perfected searching for Internet porn, Taylor makes screen-worlds tangible: “bodies made of light, ever present for endless consumption yet never themselves consumed — skin that looked sweat-slick but was in fact cool to the touch, or would have been if it has been in fact touchable, made of something other than computer glass and consummated light. Skin smooth as keyboard keys, dry and noiseless as the planetlike spinning of the trackball in its cradle.”
With lines like these, we see the Justin Taylor that the Los Angeles Times called “a master of the modern snapshot” and the New York Times-honored “new voice that readers — and writers, too — might be seeking out for decades to come” when he released a collection of short stories, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, early last year. He’s a likeable writer.
But Taylor returns to a setting that he often visited in those short stories: punk houses — part-living quarters, part-show spaces, part-activist homebases for kids who might listen to bands like Propagandhi and Black Flag and ride bikes to equal rights rallies. They are seemingly exotic places that might titillate a brownstone Brooklyn readership. In his short stories, Taylor created visceral scenes featuring characters with names like “Snapcase” sipping whiskey around a fire pit. He wrote so beautifully and vividly that we never noticed how cheaply he constructed punk culture. But as he explores this world deeper in The Gospel of Anarchy, trying to understand it, his setting and characters feel increasingly inauthentic. Instead of paying homage to punk, it feels like Taylor’s gimmick.
The protagonist, David, joins a punk house after running into an old friend Thomas, who was dumpster-diving for falafel sandwiches (“Fuck ideas. It’s food.”). He follows his friend and a girl named Liz, dressed in a beat-up leather jacket, to their home. Within a few hours, David is one-third of a threesome comprised of Liz and Katy, a Siren goddess with blue dreads, and they don’t leave their bedroom for a week.
I’ve never met a punk who has had this much sex.
Eventually, they untangle limbs to create a zine, a “gospel of anarchy,” and start a kind of religious collective.
Taylor’s punk house reads as part-tent revival and part summer sex camp — an escapist’s bunker away from the corporate world and into a den of endless orgies. The thing is, he gawks at it, and it feels cheap.
David and the rest of the characters eventually become caricatures, their attempts at religion, sexual escapades and punk antics outsizing real emotion. By the end of the novel, they are out of reach. We stop feeling Justin Taylor’s words.
David seems to be looking for something to believe in, whether its an actual god, or faith, or loyalty. The year that the novel takes place, 1999, is a few years before Friendster, MySpace and eventually Facebook would create digital communities occupied by, and perhaps comforted by, loners like David. Whether these online communities are false “friends” or genuine support systems depends on who you ask. But maybe this plot point is a clear answer from Taylor: Before joining the punk house, David drowns his own computer in the bathtub.
The problem with Taylor turning to punk houses to find his community is that he mistakenly sees them as otherworldly breeding ground for wandering souls and sex-hungry Mohawk-ed kids. In fact, they are something much simpler: a home where kids try to create a family. Rather than forcing his characters to believe in cheap dogma, I’d like to read Taylor trying to make people believe in each other.
Joyce Carol Oates the writer dressed the part. On Feb. 21, she appeared on stage at the 92Y’s Kaufman Center Hall on Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street in a black Issey Miyake turtleneck, with long, lacy sleeves, black pants and simple black boots. She wore turquoise and earth-toned gems around her neck, red rose lipstick on her lips, and carried a black purse that she plopped on the podium and dug around in for her reading glasses, before reading from her recent book, A Widow’s Story.
“I felt at some points, an allegorical figure of the widow,” she said on stage at 92Y during her reading. “Maybe the only experience that I’ve had in my life, and writing the book is part of that, where I really felt like I was representative, that it wasn’t so much about this one person, Joyce Smith, but it really could be anybody. There were times where I was overwhelmed by some wave of universal, almost like Schopenhauerian force of the impersonal.”
In the book, her first memoir, Oates explains that this version of herself — the tiny, charming woman on stage drawing out boinging vowels in that native Northern New York accent — is “JCO.” She is the professional who at age 72 has written 115 books and countless essays, presented her charms at readings all over the world and returns home to New Jersey to teach at Princeton. But there is also Joyce Smith, the woman who was married to Raymond Smith for 48 years before he went into the hospital for a case of apparent pneumonia, and died of a hospital infection in 2008.
At 92Y, Oates seemed to channel these two versions of herself: Joyce Smith, mourning widow of a man she built “a complete and happy life” with for five decades, and “JCO,” the writer who has written a book about those wrenching months during and after his death. This version of herself is also wearing a new wedding ring, having married again in 2009 to a professor of neuroscience.
Her recent marriage, and her silence about it in the book, has been the most contentious point in reviews of A Widow’s Story. “How delicately must we tread around this situation?” wrote The New York Times’ Janet Maslin in a prickly review on Feb. 14. She insisted that such a “long and rambling” book “could have found time to mention a whole new spouse. “Oates can say (and has said, on the rare occasions when interviewers have had the nerve to ask her about it) that people whose long, sustaining marriages end often choose to remarry. Fair enough. And who would begrudge her this respite from the anguish that A Widow’s Story describes? But it is less fair for A Widow’s Story to dissemble while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty.”
Oates told NPR’s Leo Lapote before the 92Y reading that including a paragraph at the end of the book that mentioned her new husband seemed disrespectful. “It violates the integrity of the book you have written,” she said.
In reviews, there are also the obvious comparisons to Joan Didion’s 2008 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, another memoir from a female writing powerhouse about devastating years of grief after losing her husband and her daughter.
At 92Y, poet Henri Cole toed around the question, of whether Oates “had a model” for the memoir, or “felt that she was answering to” another work about grief. Oates answered this way: “No, it just began with these scenes. I found myself so surprised by these things. I’d go to the hospital and find myself feeling like a character in a 19th century novel, and my husband was very ill.”
Oates’ memoir is the most personal readers have been able to get to the writer — it was drafted in a series of entries in her diary, “a place where we go when we are melancholy, or baffled, or hurt, or lonely, or feeling brooding or defeated,” Oates said. “You sort of retreat and think about it, absolutely unfettered and uncensored. I often don’t even look back at mine, because I often feel like it’s a record that I don’t want to revise.” But she did revise, over and over again, as is her process. JCO, as always, as ever, is in control.
Reading passages at 92Y, her thin fingers flickered, as if attempting to conduct 500 imaginations while describing linoleum hospital corners and the “memory pools” that form under waiting room chairs. Her hands rolled in a wave to describe emotions of panic and loneliness and bunched into claw form to describe the piles of death certificate papers, transcripts, and other legal documents she laid out in piles on the floor. Much like her text, peppered with exclamation points and italics, metaphors and similes, Oates tells readers exactly how they should interpret her words. In the memoir, there are even italicized guidelines for The Widow — thoughtful pointers for the recently bereaved, like how to accept gifts and pick out a burial plot — meant to be a kind of how-to for when the shock of losing someone leaves her desperate and unable to function.
“Most of us inhabit a very finite and protective space, cocooned by people around us,” Oates explained. “You may have parents who know you, even you don’t love them and they don’t love you a lot, the thing is that they know who you are and they look at you and the whole history is there. Or a beloved dog or cats, you know, and certainly a spouse is the most prominent of these figures. And then suddenly that’s gone, you really don’t have an ontological sense of who you are. All your efforts seem silly and vain, seem ridiculous, like paper blowing across the road.”
“It’s like being in Plato’s cave, you’re looking at shadows and you don’t quite know what’s going on,” she went on. “The shock of losing someone close to you, I think, obliterates one’s ability to think clearly so you’re reacting in ways that are very visceral. And I’m sure there are many people in the audience who have experienced this.” A few graying audience members in the middle rows breathed heavy breaths and wiped running mascara with a crumbled tissue in their fists.
Oates’ words are certainly moving. But at times in the memoir, Oates comes off as cruel. She hauls fruit baskets out to the trash before she has even opened them and mocks emails sent by colleagues trying to fill her empty spaces with words of comfort, but inevitably failing. She wants a shirt that reads, “YES MY HUSBAND DIED, YES I AM VERY SAD, YES YOU ARE KIND TO OFFER CONDOLENCES, NOW CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?”
But these are all just honest feelings, as Oates explained it, from a widow in a storm of grief. She felt, she said, “like a person who is in a river and there’s all these logs and dead carcasses and, everything, mud, you know, rushing along and then [I] just sort of get ahold of this rope in this horrible situation. Which is ludicrous, too, there’s nothing heroic or beautiful about it.” The rope was her writing.
The question is what to do with that survival mechanism — take it with her to knot it into something else, like art, or let it be what it was: something that helped her survive. Oates seemed to hope that she could give some slack, and help out others still in the river. “We all have different ropes and you just kind of grab on to it for dear life and you pull yourself out onto the shore,” she said. “The genesis of much art is desperation.”