When Reality Fails

Earlier this week, I wrote some notes on the Chang-Rae Lee and Lorrie Moore reading at the New Yorker Festival for Ms. Maud, here. As I mentioned before, I also got tickets for the “When Reality Fails” panel last Saturday morning. Apologies in advance for the inaccuracy of any quotes, hastily scrawled on index cards.

Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, dreamed of a better world, a world of answers; when she awoke, the answers didn’t exist yet, but she had dreamed into being, there on stage with her in the New York Public Library, writers capable of asking the right questions. “That’s incredible,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated with how people cope with the incredible,” said Stephen King. The corpse of Henry James walked on stage from behind a curtain in back. “Nothing odd works long,” he scoffed, but he wasn’t miked, so no one heard him. He sighed, wandered over stage right, to where George Saunders and Judy Budnitz were sitting, lingered behind them. Budnitz looked slightly uncomfortable. Saunders looked like he was used to the company of the unwanted dead. James said, “Write a dream, lose a reader.” Saunders leaned back and whispered, “I’m sorry, who invited you?” A.M. Homes said that Los Angeles didn’t exist, and we all realized she was right. Saunders fell asleep on stage, dreamed of an ex-girlfriend coming to him and saying “I just want you to know, I’m fine.” Bill Buford, Treisman’s old boss, shouted from the audience, “Use that in a story!” Henry James tried to make a tut-tutting noise, but it made all the teeth fall out of his head. Budnitz got distracted trying to help James clean up the mess. Treisman and Martin Amis agreed upon a particular set of fictional rules they would call “Realism,” but then they decided to start a band with that name instead. They pleaded with Homes to play bass. She agreed. The words “material world as first order of reality” formed on an index card in front of me, although I did not write them. That’s peculiar, I thought. King said: “What interests me is the intrusion of the peculiar.” Budnitz succeeded in planting all of James’s teeth back in his skull. Two stagehands got him a mike and a director’s chair. James said, “Y’all are a bunch of crazy-ass motherfuckers.” Then he forgot himself, tried to blow a raspberry, making his teeth pop right back out of their sockets. Budnitz gave up helping James, fell asleep, dreamed of a future plagued with natural disasters, competing fundamentalisms. Homes said the worst impossibles aren’t our future, they’re already our now. “Once you start satirizing Islam, it’s very difficult to stop,” said Amis. “The politically oriented must seek the universal,” whispered a voice inside my mind. Michael Chabon walked on stage, apologized for being hungover; he conjured up the ghost of Angela Carter, who revealed to him that she was his birth mother. Homes and Chabon thus realized they were siblings. They hugged, wept uncontrollably, moved to Iowa, co-wrote science fiction. Saunders woke up, transformed the hall we sat in into the most holy inner sanctum of the churches and synagogues and mosques of our childhoods, made us all better people. “The best stories are the ones that cause some kind of moral inflection,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how they do it.” Amis said there are two things fiction can’t do, and that’s dreams and sex. John Updike came up on stage, began making strenuous love to Carter’s ghost to prove Amis wrong. Treisman called the debate a draw. Budnitz awoke, discovered she was actually Gregor Samsa; Saunders pointed out that she wasn’t thinking to herself “Oh shit I’m a beetle,” but rather “Oh shit I’m going to be late for the bus.” Martin Amis turned into Saul Bellow. Saul Bellow turned into Baron Frankenstein. Baron Frankenstein turned into a 19th-century farmer and his dog, neither of whom were aware of the aging of the planet. James pulled the manuscript to Carrie out of the trash. It’s dreadful, King protested. No one’s going to want to read it. No, said James, it’s good, I think you should send it out. The 19th-century farmer and his dog turned into P.T. Barnum. “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” he said. Barnum turned into Vladimir Nabokov. His ideal reader, he said, was himself, but older. Nabokov turned back into Amis, said his was himself, but younger. A.M. Homes said her ideal reader was a younger Nabokov and an older Amis. An angry 20-year-old Los Angelean, cursed with acne and unrequited love, unaware of all of our existence, wandered into the Rose reading room upstairs, discovered literature.

The Hyphenations

From Ben Marcus’s article in the current issue of Harper’s, a provocative line break (on pg. 45):

As a former art intern of the magazine, I’m perhaps better qualified than most to answer the question: with 11-point Goudy in a 16-pica column, couldn’t that line just be tracked back? Actually, to tell you the truth, I think it already was.

Q & A

So did you make it to Central Park at 8:30am yesterday?

Uh, close enough. More like 9:15 or so. (Some A train troubles.)

And did you finish?

I did!

What was your time?

Christ if I know! After starting late (see above), I had to kind of rough it, running on the cobblestones and hills and rocks and roots around the great river of thousands and thousands of walkers. I’m just happy to have reached the finish line without twisting my ankle.

Was it hard? Was it emotional?

I found it difficult to connect with the real reason why we were all there—the reality of the disease itself, and the lives it wrecks, felt masked, buried underneath all the cheering, and corporate sponsorship, and chances to win new sneakers, and free wristbands and sugar water and meringue cookies and Special K. As I was running by a group of women who all appeared to be walking in memory of a mutual friend they’d lost, I overheard one of them saying, “…and it’s a beautiful day! What more could you want?” I thought to myself, a cure?

The worst feeling, though, was going to the Time Warner Center on Saturday to pick up my bib and T-shirt. At the registration table, the volunteer helping me said that although they had plenty of “In Celebration Of” back signs, they’d run out of the “In Memory Of” ones. “That’s really depressing,” I said. I could’ve been misreading him, but the look on his face made me think that until that moment he’d been thinking of this only in terms of pieces of paper, not in terms of lives. “It is depressing,” he said.

Did you run with Sherri again?

She couldn’t make it, unfortunately—too crazy with work. But I met another runner, a talented filmmaker and photographer, on the way to Central Park; after talking for a little while, I realized that she and I, years ago, were in the same section of intro. photography in college. I love it when that happens.

Hop! I forgot to make a pledge in support of your participation in the race! I really wanted to. Can I still?

Yes. You have until October 31. You can go here, and do it on the web with a credit card, or you can write a check (I put some info. on how to do that here).

I can see by the weird, exploding, boiling thermometer-of-blood animation on your Komen page that you’ve met your goal. Congratulations! Should I still make a pledge?

Yes.

I don’t have fifty dollars. Can I support your run with less?

Yes.

I have a blog. Can I link from my blog to your Komen page?

Yes.

I have friends with e-mail. Can I e-mail them a link to your Komen page?

Yes.

Hey I sponsored your run already! Do I rock?

You do indeed rock, sweetie!

I’m making a pledge in support of your participation in the race today! Right now! Do I rock too?

Yes you do, hon! Thanks for your support.

Upcoming

Neither of these things is posted yet as of this writing, but I believe it’s safe to announce that I will be 1) reading on Sunday, December 11, at the Sunday Salon, and then a few days later, on December 14, 2) covering ’80s pop songs once again at the Happy Ending Reading Series with my brilliant sister, who just won her second Bessie last night (that’s two Bessies and two Obies total, so far). Our set list for Happy Ending is not definite, but probably will include both Bon Jovi and Journey, among others; our instrumentation will also most likely include a special guest on the fiddle.

In the Neighborhood

A Hasidic gentleman came up to me as I was trying to take a picture.

He asked me a question I couldn’t make out; I shook my head and smiled to indicate I didn’t understand.

He asked again: “Are the continents in order?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t been checking for that.

“It’s man-made,” he said. I wondered, is this part of their cosmogony I’m not familiar with?

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“The wood,” he said, pointing at the door. “It’s hand-carved.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

Small Nerdy Pleasures

1) Watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin; noticing Steve Carell, in the first (if I remember correctly) bookstore scene, walk past a face-out display of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian; wondering how this is possible, since the pub date on that was back in June, and the movie was released nationally in mid-August, so unless this was a scene that they’d somehow screwed up and had to go back and re-shoot at the 11th hour this wouldn’t be possible, but it’s a slow enough pan across the display to make you assume it can’t be accidental, it has to be product placement, but then if the filming schedule was what I assume is normal, then these couldn’t even really be advance reader copies, could they?

2) Reading this very same question: “But wait—if Virgin is in theaters now, how did the novel get in a scene shot months before its June 14 publication date?” in Entertainment Weekly, and also the answer from the book’s publicist, that no, they weren’t actual books or even ARCs, they were simply mock-ups, which seems like such a bizarre idea, because surely the only nerds in the audience who are actually going to be curious to see what book is in the display behind the action in the bookstore in a movie aren’t going to say to themselves “oh, that book is popular RIGHT NOW much in the way this fictional movie is happening RIGHT NOW,” they’re going to be nerds (presumably also the same group of literary oddballs who worry about the grammatically incorrect title) who are taken out of the movie for a solid ten minutes asking question number 1), right?