Mark Vonnegut's new edition of previously unpublished Kurt Vonnegut writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, is out today, and I caught Kurt's son at a reading/book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, New York City a few hours ago tonight. Because I've read the book Mark Vonnegut had written himself in 1975, The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, I was as interested in hearing from him as I was in seeing this book of new material.
Eden Express described the turbulent mental landscape Kurt's son travelled during the hippie era, joining a commune, watching his father get famous, and ending up in a mental hospital. When Eden Express was published in 1975 it was billed as "a memoir of schizophrenia", but the current edition explains that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is more strictly defined today, and that Mark Vonnegut's illness would now be classified as manic-depressive (which is less severe).
He's now sixty-something, a medical doctor, with a bright and sincere speaking style that easily wins over the large Barnes and Noble crowd. He seems highly contented, proud of his family, and proud of his career as a medical doctor. He shares his father's thickly hooded eyes, though he is clean-shaven and his slicked-back hair bears no resemblance to Kurt's curly Aryan-fro.
The words he read tonight were heartfelt -- you can read them in the new book -- and there were a few moments when he suddenly maniacally laughed and we got a glimpse of the unhinged protaganist of Eden Express for a moment or two. And, certainly, a glimpse of the enigmatic son of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five as well.
I've said before that you may be able to judge a writer by his or her children. If so, then this modest literary son is yet another credit (as if more were needed) to the great career of Kurt Vonnegut.
(I'll be reviewing Armageddon in Retrospect soon for another publication. And, once again, I apologize for my continuing work as the worst cell-phone photographer in New York City.
2. I just attended the New York City reading debut of Mark Sarvas's upcoming novel Harry, Revised at Jami Attenberg's Boxcar Reading with Michael Dahlie, Lynn Lurie and Ceridwen Dovey. Harry, Revised is about a young widower embarking on an apparent search for self, and I cannot help imagining that there must be a lot of Mark Sarvas in the character of Harry, who (in the chapter Mark read last night) attempts to anchor his self-image by purchasing a French literary classic.
One special thing about Harry, Revised is that readers of Mark's Elegant Variation blog have been able to watch and enjoy its process of creation, and this is certainly a unique and effective way to build up anticipation for an upcoming book release. Harry, Revised hits the stores in April.
3. Earlier in the evening, before the Boxcar reading, Ed Champion and I formed an electronic mob to crash Against the Machine author Lee Siegel's conversation with John Freeman at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho (though we were well-behaved and unfortunately had to leave after only 20 minutes to get to the Boxcar in time). Lee Siegel's new book aims to be a rabble-rousing cry of protest against the looming evils of internet culture, though many of us who dwell happily online won't let Lee forget that he only began to develop this hatred of the internet after getting caught in a buffoonish attempt at dominating it.
Lee Siegel has had an acclaimed career as a pugnacious cultural critic (though the above-mentioned "sprezzatura" incident didn't help his reputation), but my encounters with his writing in the New York Times Book Review have revealed an ambitious but intellectually careless writer. He reinforced this impression last night with wild statements like "the internet is 80% porn". Siegel seems to lack the restraint and sense of balance that any cultural critic ought to have. He'll probably sell a lot of copies of Against the Machine -- blunt rhetoric does sell -- but I feel sorry for anyone who wastes their time reading it.
4. "A New Cultural Revolution" may not be the best title for this encouraging survey of the state of popular literature in China, since the actual phrase "Cultural Revolution" was used as a guise for Mao Zedong's brutal crackdown on personal, social and artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s. But this is an important article, and I'd love to learn more about China's vast book industry.
5. I don't love being greeted with a plea for my email address, but I like everything else about PublicIntegrity.org, a public repository of government documents relevant to current political issues. The new exhibit "Iraq: The War Card" offers a simple and effective search engine documenting the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.
6. Action Poets -- thanks for your patience with the new software, which is (obviously) still in beta. Coming soon: monthly archives, a better response system, other stuff. It's also a little slow, and I can fix that too (my MO as a software developer, as you may have noticed, has always been "launch first, fix later"). Hang in there, everybody ... and it's good to see old friends popping back in.
It was a few minutes before 7 pm, and at least fifty people were waiting politely in folded chairs for novelist Joyce Carol Oates at the new Tribeca Barnes and Noble in Manhattan tonight. They should have been sitting at the Starbucks on the other side of the store, because that's where Joyce Carol Oates was, demurely sipping a grande coffee in a black dress with poet Lawrence Joseph, noticed by just a respectful few.
The crowd swelled by the time John Freeman introduced Ms. Oates and Mr. Joseph, who began a free-form conversation about her Journals: 1973-1982, which has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize.
Joseph began by asking about Oates's motivations in keeping a journal all these years, and he offered a good quote from Franz Kafka as a possible explanation for the practice:
If someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.
But Oates charmingly said that Kafka could think that because he had an interesting mind, whereas she wrote mainly about the external world and considered herself transparent, "like a glass of water". She also claimed "I have no personality", drawing some mumbled protests from the affectionate crowd.
In fact, Oates is too smart to believe that she has no personality. She's got a ton of it, and it shows in the elegant way she carries herself: tall and very willowy, evoking a Pre-Raphaelite or Virginia Woolf-esque otherworldiness. She makes the kind of impression that hushes a room, and in fact I really think some film director should hire her the next time a role for an elegant elderly woman comes up, instead of speed-dialing Vanessa Redgrave or Helen Mirren like they always do. If George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote can take up late-career acting, why the hell can't Joyce Carol Oates? She'd probably win an Oscar.
I'm not sure that poet Lawrence Joseph had full control of the interview process, as he asked rather long and abstract questions about the motivations behind journal keeping, after which Joyce Carol Oates would steer him right and say something else charming or poignant. She told a story about Anais Nin's diary-keeping; Nin's father abandoned the family when she was a young girl, but she never knew if he would come back or not, and she kept the diary so that she could show him, when he returned, what he had missed. He never came back. That story, Joyce Carol Oates said, is the best illustration of why a person keeps a diary.
She also cited Henry David Thoreau as an exemplar in the art of journal-keeping, which sounds right to me. I've never managed to keep up with Joyce Carol Oates's prolific output, and in fact the last book of hers I read in full was Black Water in 1993 (I liked it). But maybe I'll pick up another of her novels; does anybody have a title to suggest?
This is the same nightclub where Patti Smith does a raucous New Year's Eve show every year. But we're at a PEN reading now, so there's a two-hour time limit, and the audience is a little itchy after five days of festival cheer, so I'm not sure what to expect. A costumed comedian named Nona Appleby opens the show and bombs badly. We've already been told that this is New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts in disguise (which kind of ruins the whole joke), and Nona's "weird old lady" outfit makes her look like a Dame Edna impersonator. The material is not fresh enough for this crowd, though a few members of the audience attempt to chuckle in sympathy for a few minutes until poor Ms. Appleby has the good sense to run off stage and let the poetry begin.
It gets better fast. Free-jazz musician Oliver Lake and Chinese poet Huang Xiang deliver a captivating short set of untranslated poems accompanied with blurts of saxophone and flute noise. Huang has a distinct style: he shouts, pleads, contorts, screams, or emotes every word, twisting his face into exaggerated masks of expression. I don't know what he's talking about (translations of his poems are on every chair, but the room is so dark they're impossible to read). I don't need to read the translations anyway, because primal screams are pretty much a universal language. I like this Noh-theatre-inflected style of performance poetry very much, though I'm sure it's not to every one's taste.
Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga follows Lake and Huang with a straight reading, a scene from a novel, but I'm still tingling from Huang Xiang's set and don't find any traction here. Clearly, this night is going to be a fascinating mixed bag.
Spoken-word hero Saul Williams comes up next, decked out in a rock star jacket and sporting some odd sort of mullethawk hairstyle (Travis Bickle up top, Kim-Jong II in back). Saul proceeds to kill the crowd with a ferocious and totally on-spot performance. I've caught Williams at group events before, but this is the first time I see what all the fuss is about, and I am now a Saul Williams fan. He's angry at the government, he's angry at hiphop, he's angry at placid people everywhere. His rhymes are impeccable, his voice loud and strong. He goes on too long, but I really don't mind.
Sam Shepard doesn't do many live readings, and I'm more eager to see him than anybody else here (I've caught a couple of his plays, Curse of the Working Class and True West, and have always liked his sinewy, minimalist approach to drama). He comes up to the mic, tall and rangy and plain-spoken, and begins reading quietly from his Motel Chronicles, not attempting to compete with Saul Williams' previous theatrics. The crowd is with him, eagerly applauding prose selections that hint at social satire and political disaffection. His style is all masculine reserve (remember, this is the guy who played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff) and zen cool. He doesn't wow anybody, but Sam Shepard has never been a "wow" kind of personality. It's simply good to hear his words in his own voice.
Patti Smith is the big closer this night needs, but she looks surprisingly subdued and reserved as she hits the stage. Now, let me make it clear that Patti Smith has done enough amazing things in her career that she can do any kind of show she wants and I'm not going to criticize her for it. I also know that she's not a performing monkey and can't reach the heights of exstatis every night. But, I am very disappointed that she chooses not to bless this audience with the kind of performance I've seen her deliver many times before. Where's the laughing warmth, the climaxes upon climaxes, the sense of risk and adventure? She starts with "Dylan's Dog" (dedicated to her former live-in lover Sam Shepard, who she says told her to write down the dream that became this poem), then follows with another great oldie, "Piss Factory". She complains that the mic stands aren't the kind she likes, offers a short intro to a long poem about the Iraq War, and then finally picks up her acoustic guitar and sings a song about William Blake. It's nice, it's poetry, but I was hoping for some major punk-rock tension and release (and, honestly, I was hoping to see Lenny Kaye join her on guitar). I leave disappointed, because this is the first time I've ever seen Patti Smith turn in only half a performance. Maybe she thought a PEN poetry crowd wouldn't want or couldn't handle the Full Patti, but if so she's wrong.
I head home, facing up to the fact that I am too exhausted to go to the PEN event I was hoping to attend on Sunday, featuring David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer (who never got to sing along with "People Have The Power"). Saturday night was a good show, but overall it was a GREAT festival. Let me sum up as simply as I can: major, major props for Caro LLewellyn, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie and all the other good people who organized this amazing series of events. PEN World Voices is absolutely *not* just another literary show-and-tell to fill up the readings calendar. It's one of the most comprehensive and progressive happenings I've ever witnessed, and I've witnessed a lot. I'm already looking forward to 2008.
I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to QuickMuse.com. The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.
I have been a McEwan fan since reading his Atonement, but I had no idea how popular he was until I found myself at the very back of a crowded room where at least 150 New Yorkers, mostly eclectically-dressed Hunter College students, sat and listened attentively to the author's every word.
He picked a great passage for this crowd: a sex scene in separate male and female voices featuring a British couple on their wedding night. It's 1962 and both Edward and Florence are nervous virgins. They struggle to get their clothes off, and then finally reach a small sensual epiphany together, even if it's not exactly sex. McEwan first presents her side of the story, then his. Their private metaphors cross and complement each other: as they caress each other she hears Mozart quartets, while he has a vision of farming equipment.
The audience loved the piece, and I enjoyed it too. McEwan answered a few questions after the reading, and mentioned that the nuclear crisis of October 1962 was an underlying theme in the sex scene with Florence and Edward. He also spoke of Atonement's upcoming film interpretation, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. He mentioned that filming was finished, and said that he'd found his participation difficult because the medium of film does not capture the interior worlds of its characters as easily as fiction.
This was the first time I'd seen McEwan in person, and he made a very good impression on me. His demeanor is polite, detached and rather coolly droll, as when he answered a student's long, convoluted question about the process of writing about sex in literary fiction with a single sentence: "Well, there are many positions to take". That was McEwan's whole answer, and a pretty clever one at that.
2. I'm still learning the ropes at the Litblog Co-op, and I'm looking forward to participating in the next Read This! selection. The current selection is Michael Martone by Michael Martone, a metafictional tour de force that evokes M*A*S*H and many other things, and it was selected by Dan Green, who explains his choice.
3. I attended a Cynthia Ozick reading at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street last week. She is a charming speaker with a surprisingly sweet and musical voice, and her demeanor was much gentler in person than on the page. She chose an illuminating biographical piece about Helen Keller as a sample from her new book of essays, A Din in the Head. I was not aware that Helen Keller faced great public derision (as well as great acclaim) during her difficult life; some authorities considered her a fraud, and she suffered terribly when a story she allegedly claimed to have written turned out to have been previously published by another author. It's not at all clear that Keller was a plagiarist (it's much more likely that she never intended to represent herself as the story's author), and I'm guessing that Ozick selected this essay partly because it provides interesting historical perspective on the famous plagiarism scandals of 2006. But I believe Cynthia Ozick mainly chose this essay because it expresses a private connection she feels with the legendary deaf dumb and blind girl, who also had to struggle to establish her career as a writer. I enjoyed Cynthia Ozick's subtle and edifying presentation very much, and I recommend that you catch her if she comes to your town.
4. Let's see, what else? Via Rake's Progress, here's a description of an upcoming new Thomas Pynchon novel that leaked out briefly on Amazon. A few interesting obituaries of Indian author Raja Rao can be found here. Finally, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has declared himself a political conservative. I don't know enough about the U.K. political scene to say anything intelligent at all about this, so I wish one of these guys would provide some context (Unless I've missed something, neither has mentioned it yet).
I don't usually feel awestruck when I hear a famous writer speak. But I'll make an exception for John Updike, who faced a packed house at the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library on Thursday night, because I have enjoyed so many of his books for so long, and because I've never had the chance to see this author in person before.
He saunters onstage to mild applause, slender and now thoroughly white-haired, but thankfully not wearing the bright white shirt he was recently seen with in San Francisco. He's here to talk about Terrorist, a new novel that examines the inner world of a teenage Islamic terrorist-in-training in a depressed New Jersey city. The evening's moderator is Jeffrey Goldberg, a political correspondent for the New Yorker, who begins by pointing out that Terrorist is one of the most political novels of Updike's career. He asks the author to tell us about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001, which he spent on the roof of his son's Brooklyn Heights apartment watching the twin towers burn and fall.
Ten years later, a vast poetry extravaganza featuring Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso was held in London's Royal Albert Hall. This shagadelic event spread Beat fever throughout England, and has been cited by many swinging Londoners as a key event in their country's growing underground. Michael Horovitz, one of the principals of the 1965 reading, is organizing a 40th anniversary event at Royal Albert Hall, which will feature an impressive lineup including Pete Townshend and an outfit apparently called the William Blake Klezmatrix. More info here.