Brooklyn Book Festival: Joan Didion, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Price Triumphant
Brooklyn Book Festival
Sunday, September 14
It was a late Saturday Los Angeles Times article that broke the news of David Foster Wallace's death for most of us, and it was their book editor David Ulin's quote, describing the scene at Saturday's National Book Critics Circle Board meeting in New York City, that best summed up the character of a weekend most of literary Brooklyn had been looking forward to for a long time: "What was a party is now a wake."
The Brooklyn Book Festival, which took place the following day, was according to Johnny Temple of Akashic Books (and, once upon a time, Girls Against Boys), "the biggest public literary event in the borough's history"—call it a mass farewell. Only once did Wallace come up by name, and that was, suitably, in the middle of the Simon Rich, Henry Alford, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Ben Greenman-featuring comedy panel "Writing Funny." Greenman nodded, "very sadly," to Wallace as a departed ideal of "serious" funny writing. He was that and more.
Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich, detoxing after his show's opening season bout with Wayne, Tina, et al, remained convinced that the panel, which took place in Borough Hall's most august courtroom, was in fact a dream: "I am sixty percent sure this is a nightmare in which I've been accused of a serious crime." Suitable, since the general conclusion seemed to be everything was funnier when being mistaken for something else (Henry Alford: "Raymond Chandler, I think, is hilarious"; Rich, again: "I always thought I was writing horror.")
Credit to the festival's organizers for keeping things down to earth, although when they didn't, look out. An iffily conceived "Out of Place" panel chose—apparently by virtue of their last names—Rivka Galchen, Moustafa Bayoumi, and David Rakoff to speak on the "exciting, disconcerting, and sometimes dangerous experience of being out of place." Galchen, responding to the futility of the exercise, read out some of her favorite Dewey Decimal subcategories ("Rednecks in Motion Pictures," "Lawns in Literature"). Lunchtime.
Then, enter the titans: Richard Price, in a pink shirt, talking screenwriting with A.M. Holmes (Price: "Do your best, then just get paid"). Ian MacKaye and Thurston Moore, confirming once again that there may be no two more difficult interview subjects in punk rock. ("Please keep in mind these guys have been interviewed hundreds of times," said moderator Johnny Temple, "so don't ask the obvious questions." Second audience question: "Do you think objects of music and art are more fetishized than they used to be?") Jonathan Lethem, George Pelecanos, and Dorothy Allison read next, Lethem chuckling about "home court advantage" and reading the section of Fortress of Solitude in which Mingus, now Dose, the crackhead, betrays himself once again, "complicit in renovation, making Boerum Hill of Gowanus"—huge, guilty laughs.
Finally, at the cocktail hour, the grown-ups: "The Consequences to Come," a New York Review of Books panel on the increasingly dim Democratic election prospects, moderated by NYRB editor Robert Silvers and featuring Joan Didion, in whose almost tangible halo you could also see fellow panelists and NYRB writers Mark Danner, Ronald Dworkin, and Darryl Pinckney. The predictions were dire, but Didion prevailed: "I'm going to stand up because I'm too short to sit down and talk," she said, and in her surprisingly young woman's voice she read a short piece on the election. "We were talking all this time about how different it was, but it wasn't," she said, and her trademark litanies ("We could argue over…") were spoken in room that was visibly holding its breath. The last word was left to Pinckney, who took a hard look at the day's bad news, his fellow-panelists' dispiriting poll numbers and statistics, and a very scary political climate and said, merely, "I refuse to freak out."