Friday, January 8, 2010

How I Won Jonathan Lethem's Reading Copy

How I Won Jonathan Lethem’s Reading Copy From the “Lethem vs. Chronic City” Marathon tour –

My Acceptance Speech

New York, New York – 10 January 2009 – First, I’d like to thank my support staff, Lou, Seiji, Johnny, Kim, Danny and Dennis. The first five are bartenders, the last, the owner, of the KGB bar where I hatched my “In the Front Row, On the Dole” going-to-readings project of which the Chronic City marathon is one chapter.

I would never have been able to go to the Chronic City readings and perform so well as an audience member had I not sharpened my game at the many readings, especially Suzanne Dottino’s Sunday Night Fiction series, at the East Village literary landmark.

I’d like to thank Jonathan Lethem for coming up with the idea of giving the fan who attended the most readings his personal, “reading” copy of Chronic City.

In the slew of media appearances and hoopla that I have been the beneficiary of since I was named winner of the reading copy, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: if Lethem hadn’t written Chronic City, I wouldn’t be on this dais, this evening, receiving this honor. I hope his contribution to my accomplishment will not be overlooked.

I’d also like to thank my friend Turlough for ordering weed by delivery that time I was at his house. I don’t know if I would have had my critical insight that the name of pot delivery guy in Chronic City, Foster Watt, is almost certainly a reference to Irish writer Samuel Becket’s novel, Watt, if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of that delivery. I might also have had trouble visualizing the Lucite cubes that the weed in Chronic City is sold in, had it not been for Turlough’s desire to get high that winter afternoon.

Many of you have asked me what were some of the high points that occurred while I was piling up my unprecedented score of attending six of the eight marathon readings. Here are a few.

I thought it was funny when the man from the Cue Foundation, the host of reading No. 6, asked me where Lethem was in the novel. I misunderstood him and said that most novelists say there’s a little bit of them in each character. Still not understanding, I added the Flaubert quote about an author being, like God, everywhere and nowhere in his work. Then the Cue reading organizer said he meant how far along Lethem was in his project of reading the whole book. I said, “He’s far behind. The last reading will be a long one.” Prophetic words.

Another vignette from the tour that I enjoyed happened at reading No. 5 at Greenlight Books in Ft. Greene. Anyone who attended even one of Lethem’s readings this fall probably heard him say that he started Chronic City in 2004. At the time he said he was depressed by the way the then newly re-elected administration co-opted New York City’s tragedy, 9/11, to justify even worse atrocities, namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But only in the question and answer portion of the Ft. Greene reading did he take this thought a step further. Talking about the arrival of the U.S.S. New York in the city earlier that month, this is the ship constructed partially from WTC steel, Lethem said, “What are they going to do next, beat people over the head with the bones of the dead?”

I thought this was both profound and poetic as is often the case with Lethem.

On a lighter note, let me address one item that Chronic City fans have been asking me about. Everyone wants to know who the hero of Chronic City, Perkus Tooth, is? I can’t speak for Lethem, but for everyone who thinks Greil Marcus is some percentage of Perkus, I’d only note, in supporting this argument, that it probably isn’t a coincidence that the reissue of Marcus’ book “Lipstick Traces” had a pub date smack in the middle of the “Lethem vs. Chronic City” marathon.

Short, Beautiful Blonde Women --

One theme from the tour, the short, beautiful blonde women motif first appeared at the Greenlight Books reading. After the event, I noticed a young woman that fit this description talking with Lethem as if she knew him.

That’s fine, but it was hardly a groundbreaking moment in my experience of the “Lethem vs. Chronic City” marathon. No, it was the appearance of a second short, beautiful blonde woman at the next reading that was noteworthy.

Because what the second short, beautiful blonde woman was able to do was to reverse the usual dynamic of the question and answer part of the reading. This is no small accomplishment.

Normally when an audience member asks the author a question, they are paying a small act of homage. Maybe sucking up is too strong, but by asking a question, there are announcing a need to be part of the event, a more visible part than if they just sat there. Because of the public nature of a reading, they are also putting themselves at the author’s mercy. If the author reacts to their question as if it’s stupid, they will be dissed in front of an audience. So for the questioner, the need for some personal contact with the author outweighs his fear of possible embarrassment.

I think Lethem was aware of his questioners need for some bit of personal contact because he made a point of saying “Hi” to each questioner when he acknowledged them. An audience member asks a question because they want to have a semi-personal, semi-public conversation with the author. The questioner is asking the author what he thinks. It isn’t reciprocal. The audience member is in his seat and the author is behind the podium. The person behind the podium has more power. Usually the psychological weight of the questioner’s need to ask the question is directed to the author, the person behind the podium.

But when the beautiful, short blonde woman at the Cue Foundation reading asked the question about the passage in Chronic City when two of the characters, Chase and Ona, visit the earthworks kind of sculpture project “Urban Fiord,” she reversed this whole relationship. Lethem answered her question. I asked the next question. My motivation wasn’t to curry favor or communicate with the author as it would normally have been. Believe me, I’m a frequent questioner and in my case, it is usually sucking-up. But this time I trotted out my theory about the meaning of the “Urban Fiord” episode in order to impress the short, beautiful blonde woman. Lethem was beside the point, she disintermediated the author!

The Man with the Dylanesque Hair from Prospect Heights

I was disappointed that the short, beautiful blonde woman theme petered out at the next reading, No. 7, at Williamsburg’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookstore. But, fortunately, The Man with the Dylanesque Hair from Prospect Heights popped up to replace it.

I struck up a conversation with him because we were sitting next to each other at the Spoonbill event. He said this was his third reading, but that he hadn’t read the book yet. I told him that if he was ever inclined to worry that he might not have much of a life because he could find time to go to more than one stop on the “Lethem vs. Chronic City” marathon, he could take some consolation that there was at least one person with even more free time: me.

Just like the motif of the short, beautiful blonde women, The Man with the Dylanesque Hair from Prospect Heights really blossomed at the second reading that I ran into him.

At the final reading, the BookCourt event on Dec. 4, I saw him at the buffet table and we started talking. Somehow, he ended up telling me a story about going to see the legendary, seven hour and twelve minute Hungarian movie, “Satantango.” This movie, which I’d never heard of, was directed by Bela Tarr and was completed in 1994. Apparently, Susan Sontag was a huge fan of the movie. She tried to see it whenever it was shown. In New York, that usually meant seeing it at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma).

The Man with the Dylanesque Hair said that the last time he’d gone to see the movie, also at Moma, as he was waiting for it to start he was reading the New Yorker. Specifically, he was reading a story about how Susan Sontag loved the movie. She claimed to have seen it 17 times. When she went to see it at Moma, she always sat in the middle of the third row, always the same seat. The Man with the Dylanesque Hair said he was amazed to realize that as he was reading the story about Sontag’s favorite seat, he was sitting in it.

I liked the coincidence of meeting this guy for the second time at a “Lethem vs. Chronic City” marathon reading and hearing his story about another artistic marathon. Since that last reading at BookCourt lasted from 7 pm to 4:11, a total of 9 hours and 11 minutes, Lethem surpassed the length of “Satantango” by an hour and 59 minutes. That’s pretty good.

Sure, sticklers may point out that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-part, television adaptation of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” runs 15 and a half hours, but Lethem could break that record, too. He’s a youthful-looking 45. He probably has at least a decade of potentially being in tip-top physical condition and at least a few more books to go. Look at Bret Favre, the 40-ish NFL quarterback. There’s no reason why Lethem, who even has a treadmill in his office, couldn’t beat the “Berlin Alexanderplatz” record if he wanted to. And if there’s a reading copy to be had from that project, I hope I win it.

Marathon Bombshell: Lethem Never Shot Baskets in Dolores Park!

In addition to my first meeting with The Man With The Dylanesque Hair at marathon tour stop #7, I also spoke with Miles Bellamy, one of the owners of the store.

In the course of introducing Lethem, he mentioned that they had played hoops together in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 80s. Since I’d lived in the Mission myself, though in the 70s, I was curious about which court they’d played on. Miles said he couldn’t remember, it was just some small court tucked away someplace. I asked him if it might have been in Dolores Park. Miles said he’d played tennis there, but not basketball with Lethem. I guess I could have asked Lethem, but the thing is, if you are going to go to six of an author’s eight readings, it is best to give the writer some space and not ask stupid personal questions like, “So, why don’t we grab a beer after the reading” or “Where’d you shoot hoops in the Mission in the eighties.”

Lethem isn’t the only author who understands and is sensitive to the likelihood that the audience members at a reading would probably like to hang out with him. Toby Barlow, the author of the verse novel about werewolves in LA, “Sharp Teeth,” simply announced to the audience at a reading at Soho’s McNally Jackson bookstore that he and his small entourage would be at the bar around the corner if any audience members cared to join him.

Marathon Copy Fails to Win Top Ranking !

But while I didn’t get to have a beer with Lethem, I did win the reading copy. Now that I have it in my possession, I must conclude with some disappointment that Lethem seems to be a rather neat man. There are no coffee or wine stains on the book. On the inside cover, someone, presumably Lethem, has written: “Marathon Copy: Do Not Steal.”

This probably wasn’t necessary, but might have been a nod to Lethem’s youth in the Bay area, where book theft by young writers isn’t unheard of. In fact, there’s a passage in Lethem’s non-fiction book, “The Disappointment Artist” in which his Bay-area girlfriend either successfully steals or gets caught stealing one of his books.

Beyond that inscription, the other markings are workmanlike and, perhaps not surprisingly, have to do with how far he’d gotten at each reading. On page 294, the opening of Chapter 18, Lethem wrote “10:15? Begin NTUSA.” Alongside this, there is an arrow pointing to the word Eighteen with the name Jessica Hawley. She was one of the readers on the final night of the tour in his support troupe, the National Theatre of the United States of America.

Even though the other markings in the book are equally brief and to the point, I’m still happy to have won the reading copy. But, naturally, the reading copy is only No. 2 in my affection among the copies of Chronic City that I own. My favorite is my own copy, bought at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble, I’m not proud to admit. But it’s my favorite because it’s the one I read, it has my markings and my coffee stains. So even though I wouldn’t have this moment behind this podium, addressing you in this ballroom tonight, but for my good fortune in winning Lethem’s reading copy, my personal copy of Chronic City that I’ve read once and half times, in whose pages I first met Perkus, Chase, Ona, Richard Abneg, Foster Watt and Billings is even more prized than the prize you are honoring me for winning tonight.

The “Lethem vs. Chronic City” marathon wasn’t that long a trip. It wasn’t that strange a trip. But my victory, for all the fanfare it has brought me, only complements, and does not surpass, the pleasure that any reader, even you stay-at-homes who have never even hoisted a Baltica beer at KGB, can get from “Chronic City.

My triumph in winning Lethem’s reading copy, The Man with the Dylanesque Hair’s chance to sit in Susan Sontag’s seat, these are just extra benefits for those of us on the periphery of the arts in New York. Maybe another audience member will win Lethem’s or another author’s reading copy the next time somebody stages a marathon. Maybe the next time the motif of the short, beautiful blonde woman is about to appear, she will sit quietly, not ask a question and not rearrange the force fields in a room. It doesn’t matter. Whether it’s Jonathan Lethem or Bela Tarr, whether it’s a $27.95 purchase at, preferably an independent bookstore, I know, I know, or a once a year screening at Moma, let us thank the artists, not those of us in the audience. For myself, and for my colleague, The Man With the Dylanesque Hair, let me say thank you to Jonathan Lethem and to Bela Tarr. A real grind of a marathon would be to live in world without a Chronic City, without a Satantango.