Talk of Two Towns
My New Yorker Festival Diary
Jet Blue is the New Yorker of airlines—polished, reassuring, well staffed, funny. There is a TV on the back of the seat in front of you, and the Jet Blue channel occasionally reads, "Without you, we'd just be flying a bunch of TVs around the country." The seats are leather and roomy, the passengers are reading real books, and the complimentary snacks include biscotti and cashews. Plus, on the red eye, everyone receives "a small gift": a light-blue sleep mask and some earplugs. The flying itself is blissfully uneventful.
Friday Night, October 6
Unlike a certain defunct Seattle book festival, the New Yorker festival is integrated into the city of New York. It takes place in Manhattan bars, theaters, dance studios, restaurants, conference rooms, and on the street. The magazine's contributors fly in from all over—including the Northwest. The first night, Charles D'Ambrosio and Sherman Alexie give a reading in an auditorium at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.
D'Ambrosio goes first, introduced by his editor at the magazine, Carin Besser, who describes his stories as powerful and dense and says, "Despite their dark elements, I think of them as profoundly romantic." This isn't the first thing that occurs to a person reading a D'Ambrosio story, but it's absolutely right. D'Ambrosio reads aloud from his story "Up North," the scene where some men head out into the woods of Western Washington in the middle of winter wearing snowsuits patterned with dark branches on a white background, and denigrate each other, and kill a turkey.
Then Alexie (whose writing, Besser says, is "cool and revealing and unabashedly slapstick" and has "revised our expectations of Native American literature") comes out. He says, "I wasn't sure what to read. The last two stories I sent to the New Yorker they rejected." Laughter. "So I couldn't read one of those. That's sort of like sending a wedding invitation to your ex-girlfriend." More laughter. He claims he's nervous, but nervous energy is Alexie's specialty, his way of putting on a show, and by the time he's done reading—kid on a Native American reservation, born with water on the brain, destitute family, no friends, has a dog, dog ends up shot by father because the family can't afford to take care of it—he has tears in his eyes.
During the Q&A, both writers are sitting in front of a screen printed with the New Yorker's logo and a purple and yellow image of Manhattan. The distance between where they're sitting and the places they write about and live is a theme of the conversation. Alexie is amazed that he's gotten here: "I had an outhouse until I was 7, my parents didn't go to college, and now I get to sit on stages and read for the New Yorker." D'Ambrosio feels dislocated by the brightness of the stage lights: "I can't see you," he tells the audience, "and I have this childish fear that you can't see me. And yet I have the sense that I'm here." They are questioned about the West. "I'm from Spokane," an audience member says, "and I was wondering: What makes the Northwest the Northwest?" When someone else asks if D'Ambrosio and Alexie planned what they were going to read together, because both stories ended with an animal getting shot, Alexie cracks, "It's just because we're from the West; that's what we do."
It's a fantastic reading. Afterward there are 200 chocolate cupcakes—a surprise—to celebrate Alexie's birthday. Then, for the writers and the media, there's an opening-night party in Midtown, where an enterprising columnist for the New York Observer is working the room, asking people to point out famous writers. "It never gets wild at these parties," Zadie Smith tells the reporter, which I only know because it ends up in his column, as does what Smith is wearing ("Her hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a navy wrap dress with a sparking clasp and tiger-print pumps"), as does Tobias Wolff saying, "Now you can hardly make a living on short stories," and D'Ambrosio saying, "It's true. That's partly why I started on a novel."
Saturday, October 7
Saturday is a whirlwind, with events stacked up against each other. Actor/humorist Steve Martin interviewing cartoonist Roz Chast early in the morning is not quite as exciting as it sounds (someone at the back of the room sleeps straight through it). Likewise, legal writer Jeffrey Toobin's afternoon interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (lamenting young people's disinterest in U.S. government, especially to a room full of people obviously interested in government, becomes uninteresting pretty quickly; plus, it's a letdown to learn that the justices never raise their voices at one another). But David Remnick's afternoon interview with Garry Kasparov is electric. Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker (and a Pulitzer-winning journalist on the subject of Russia) and Kasparov is "generally considered to be the best player to ever sit behind a chess board," now retired to focus on Russian politics. A conversation between these two guys could get really wonky really fast but Remnick keeps it on track like a natural editor, supplying context and humor. They talk about whether Putin is a fascist, the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and whether Deep Blue cheated. When an audience member asks Kasparov about an unusual move he made in a tournament more than a decade ago, Remnick makes a face and says, "There's going to be a nerd contest—" and the crowd explodes with laughter.
Later, between events, I'm in Bryant Park, which is sort of like Seattle's Cal Anderson Park: It's in the middle of everything, so it's a mix of people hanging out and people passing through; there's a fountain; there's grass. I'm thinking again about D'Ambrosio and Alexie's event. Jeffrey Lewis's song "Seattle," about leaving New York City for Seattle, comes up on my iPod. I happen to be holding a new novel set in Seattle by Jonathan Raban, who occasionally contributes to the New Yorker. I get the strange feeling that I'm in overlapping cities. Of course, I've just passed a Starbucks. Wherever you are in Manhattan, you've just passed a Starbucks. I look around and there it is—across from the park's Northwest corner.
Sunday, October 8
In the last time slot on the last day, Zadie Smith delivers a lecture that, rumor has it, sold out in minutes. Her title is "Fail Better" and her point of beginning (and a major point in her novels) is that we are all different from one another, that "Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world," and that "We do not know people as we think we do." She talks about style as a writer's way of rendering the world, style as "the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness." The lecture has a fake writer named Clive as its protagonist—the lecture begins with him sitting down to "the blank possibility of the Microsoft Word program"—but tons of real writers (Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Murdoch, Nabokov) enter to make various points, their mugs flashing on a screen above the podium. Smith goes on a tear about Eliot's influential essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"—not an easy thing to disagree with, she admits, because of its High Church style—on the grounds that Eliot is wrong to equate biography with personality, that two people might go through the same stuff and come out very different, that he had an interest in obscuring the distinction because he was obsessed with privacy. When Smith moves on from Eliot, these words appear on the screen: "(Sorry about that detour.)" Smith has mastered PowerPoint, which is owned by Microsoft, which is headquartered a few miles from Seattle.