On Monday night, I attended the David Foster Wallace/Rick Moody reading at the Herbst Theatre. But I do not offer a report here, predominantly because (a) I had essentially travailed from plane to apartment to evening entertainment in a remarkably short period of time as considerable rain hit my hatless head, (b) I forgot to bring my notepad, (c) my parietal lobe is presently overburdened and (d) I had decided to actually enjoy this particular event rather than chronicle it. However, for those who are curious, Mr. Tito Perez has offered his report on what went down, far better than anything I can offer here, given the four above preexisting variables.
I’ll only add that Rick Moody proved to be less impressive than I expected, essentially an overgrown surfer dude in the guse of a public intellectual. (His squeaky “Hey dude” voice did not help.) Where Wallace riffed successfully on certain subjects, was quite self-deprecating and willing to confess his naivete to the crowd (by contrast, Wallace’s voice struck me as a pleasantly sincere computer programmer), Moody was unwilling to plead ignorance on certain subjects, often answering questions without any thorough understanding of the subjects.
At one point, the subject of post-9/11 fiction came out. Moody opined that nearly all fiction had turned realist and predictable and that the critical climate encouraged this. Moody complained about some critics and reviewers of this genus who were quite savage in their analyses. B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” was brought up, but Moody implied that Myers was, as is the fashion of post-9/11 literary criticism, going out of his way to belittle anything considered ambitious. Moody considered Myers’ recent review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be one of the cruelest reviews he had read in recent memory. But I think Moody was missing Myers’ point and mischaracterizing him. For one thing, “A Reader’s Manifesto” was written before 9/11 and could not therefore be categorized as a reactionary response tied explictly to the political clime (and Moody seemed to believe that politics had an inherent effect on literature). For another thing, while it is clear to anyone that Myers does not care for pomo stunts, Myers’ initial manifesto essay was primarily concerned with asking where today’s Knut Hamsuns, Ernest Hemingways, Albert Camuses and James M. Cains might be found and why the current reading climate favored digression. If fiction concerns itself to some degree with realism, then why are pure exercises of this type discouraged? Even though I revel in reading postmodernism epics myself, I still think Myers’ question is a fair one to ask, if only to preserve a myriad of novelistic forms within the current literary climate.
The evening’s primary problem was its format. Rick Moody was apparently the center of the evening, with David Foster Wallace attempting to interview him and Moody often failing to parse when Wallace was asking him a question. But in Moody’s defense, I am not certain if Wallace, who is a fantastic digressor in person, even knew when he was asking a question. Wallace had thoroughly prepared for this evening. His copy of The Diviners was meticulously tabbed and flagged and he had a thick file of all of the emails that the two men had exchanged with each other before this evening. And it was Wallace who read the passages. But Wallace’s mode of questioning involved a lengthy observation that he had espied from Moody’s novel, followed by a digression and then a moment of confusion when Moody failed to jump in.
Make no mistake. When Wallace was off on a tangent, he was quite an interesting talker. Two high points of the evening involved Wallace pointing out the preprogrammed responses that come with preaching to the converted on either side of the political perspective and on the subject of irony (as explored in his essay “E Unibus Pluram”), where Wallace still maintained that a work of art that was unabashedly sentimental was more of a revolutionary act today than embracing the hip and edgy in contemporary art.
But the evening was badly in need of a moderator. When two highly introspective writers attempt to interview each other on stage, inevitably you have lengthy periods of silence, mumbling and assorted confusion. The two men frequently asked the audience if they were indeed talking sensibly and articulately, and seemed genuinely mystified about why they were there.
I was also highly perturbed by the wireless mike setup, which severely afflicted Wallace. The mike had been placed catastrophically close to Wallace’s nose, resulting in the man coming across as a Midwestern Darth Vader.
A few other random observations:
1. The subject of how to concentrate upon art during political turmoil came up. Spec., is art important when some heinous Republican policy goes down? Wallace confessed that the 2004 election had acutely bothered him. He had not expected these results and could not believe that they had happened. Thus, it had made him less inclined to pursue fiction and more predisposed to write essays like “Howl” and “Consider the Lobster.”
2. In light of the sentimental novel as contrarian artistic offering thought above, Wallace mentioned that he had attempted a novel along these lines, “thankfully, something you will never see.”
3. When the two men were pressed to name the top five novels of the ’90’s, they had difficulty doing so, with Moody placing Underwold, The Gold Bug Variations and both Infinite Jest and Purple America in this pantheon. But in their defense, the large group we had collected to attend this event attempted to do the same at Max’s Opera Cafe and managed to rattle off about ten titles, although with some effort and some clear confusion over whether certain titles had indeed been published during the 1990’s. (For those who wish to comment on this post, what would you consider to be the top five novels of the 1990’s? I suspect the difficulty here invovles the incredible glut of tepid Barthelmie knockoffs, largely encouraged by Eggers & Company, which, as far as I’m concerned, single-handedly sounded the death knell to postmodernism.)
4. The subject of last year’s National Book Awards ceremony, with the strange controversy of the “five women from New York,” came up. Moody suggested that he was surprised that so many people exepcted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to get its due, but suggested that innovation could only be found outside of the establishment. As an example of this, he cited an author he had found on the Internet who had written a story called “Four Square” (multiple search engines can’t seem to dig up this story and I don’t have the author’s name; so, if anyone has any leads, I’d appreciate it), where an author had divided each page into four quadrants and the reader jumped from one quadrant to another, following the story on each page.
[UPDATE: Mr. Esposito has his report up.]
[UPDATE 2: Rick Moody has apparently responded over at Tito’s.]