Halfway through the evening, I thought to myself, “If they bomb this auditorium right now, American literature would be set back 20 years.”
While Cheney and Edwards duked it out in Cleveland Tuesday night, UCLA’s Royce Hall filled with what passes in L.A. for progressive activists: a mixture of liberal-leaning undergrads, subdued Hollywood power-brokers and aging hippies who laugh a little too loudly at every swipe voiced against the Right. This gathering of left, like birds on a wire come to roost, was Downtown for Democracy’s “Take Back Your Democracy” reading. Modeled after the sucessful New York event last May at Cooper Union, D4D’s Wrong Coast literary fete, lacked the energy and crackle of a New York audience, but who cares when you get the chance to see and hear Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Susan Lori-Parks, Anne Lamott, Alice Sebold and Dave Eggers all in one night? To add specialness to excitement, “Everything is Illuminated” author Jonathan Safran Foer hosts.
Foer began the evening, dressed in a polite and courteous suit by expressing his gratitude to be in an audience of people who shared his views, shared his core belief and shared his conviction that the Republican Party was the best goddamn party on Earth. His remarks to the audience outlined his core beliefs as a Republican and discounted the views of that other group who try to protect “this-so-called-environment” and so the joke continued. Sobering up his message at the end, he asked the audience to envision four more years of Bush. “We will be able to achieve so much more, unhampered by the yoke of reelection, think of the Supreme Court judges we can appoint, think about gun control and abortion, think about the economy, think about our relationship with the world, think about Iran and North Korea and Syria.” The list lasted minutes and silenced the audience.
First up to read, Michale Chabon (pronounced “chay-ben”, it turns out) read from his upcoming novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, which can be considered another foray into the increasingly crowded genre of Speculative Detective fiction Set in a Alternate Future in Which Jews Rule The Earth. As he read in a kind of harsh gravel monotone, his shaggy hipster hair seemed to transmute into the wild mane of some violent and outrageous rabbinical scholar. Truth be told though, it sounded interesting, but a little too-hard boiled for my taste.
David Foster Wallace was up next with a work, which he claimed to be from his new novel, “terrifying called, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”. Wallace’s contribution, a character description of a schoolboy who asks his father to donate the money he would spend on buying the boy ice cream at the DQ to the Easter Seals, a boy who is essentially a litanny of all the things a good person should do , a boy whom everyone hates, was by far the most stand out moment of the evening. Wallace is often charged of writing nothing but Best Little Boy in the World types, but whatever dude- they’re good! Shut up already.
Susan Lori-Parks followed with the overture from “The Last Black Man on Earth” and a piece from her novel “Getting Mother’s Body” which she sang to us, her hands moving invisible dials in front of the podium all the while.
Anne Lamott, who I did not recognize at the time, but remembered this morning wrote the excellent collection of essay’s “Bird by Bird” shared the story of her 49th birthday, which occurred the day after the Iraq war started. There’s such an easy style to her writing, but also to how she speaks, it’s as if she’s invited you into her kitchen to talk about her nervousness, her dislike of the desert and her prayer’s to God that seem to be answered only with free ham from the grocery store. She’s really good, folks.
Alice Sebold came on next. Frankly, her story, “After the War” about a drowned house and a Contessa and a young man seemed moody and evocative but also lulling- as in, to sleep. As she spoke, her narrow eyes looked down on the page, making it appear to us watching that she was speaking to us with her eyes closed, reading not paper, but eyelids. Her fur jacket made her look like Nicole Kidman in Dogville, a mobster’s moll. As you can tell, the mind wandered.
Ending the evening was Dave Eggers, who Jonathan Safran kind of introduced in a way that made him sound like a reliable racehorse. “Of course, you’ll all enjoy Dave Eggers. He will surely entertain you.” I can’t blame Safran though, I’m pretty weary of Egger’s pseudo-highbrow manic schtick myself. Eggers didn’t fail to deliver, however, offering up a father’s explanation to his daughter of how he and his wife changed the world, rather rapidly, in fact. Most notably, amid all the electric cars and week-long elections and such was the idea that Cleveland ought to be covered in ivy, “as, you know, a tourist draw”. Best idea Eggers has had in years.
The lights came up and in the front row, there was David Foster Wallace chatting it up with Alice Sebold. Mike Chabon and Anne Lamott seemed deep in conversation, Dave Eggers smiled and Susan Lori-Parks was nowhere to be found. It was as if that mass-produced Barnes and Noble Café wallpaper where all the literary giants got together for java had come to life.