Monday, November 20, 2006

book tourist

It’s never perfectly safe to go hear a writer you like read from his or her new book.

No matter how often Postmodernity levels its fully-loaded AK47 at the Author (we're back to reading Proust through a bombsight), I still have a strong sense of the authorial voice. What happens if that voice – coming straight outta the author’s mouth – is squeaky, nasal, hammy, or otherwise nails-on-a-blackboard awful? Or what if it's even just incongruous?

What happens if Papa Hemingway is really Mama Cass?

Well, maybe that’s not such a great example. The four-part ham-and-heroin sandwich harmony versus the cold and clear bull-and-bullet cocktail.

Let me try this again: What happens if Dr. Benway sends Dr. Phil in his stead?

Can you hear me now?

I took this chance twice last week. Twice. You’d think I’d stay holed up in my house, in front of my laptop like I’m supposed to. If humans were meant to leave the house, they wouldn’t have evolved such nice butts to sit on. They’d have wings and flippers too so they’d be able to get around without skidding and weaving down 101 or taking San Francisco’s colorful Muni, which always smells like that little Chinese grandmother sitting in front of you just farted.

Nor would there be so many chairs. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are an awful lot of chairs around. And Barcaloungers. Would a beneficent god have invented TiVo and Barcaloungers with cup holders if he’d meant for people to stand up? No!

If people weren't designed to sit, they’d be standing around all the time, just waiting for the next opportunity to go somewhere. And they’d have fur. Lots of fur, so when they walked out into a dank San Francisco fall evening, they wouldn’t be so darned cold.

Nope. It’s pretty clear that from an evolutionary perspective, people were never intended to leave the house. Especially not to go hear writers flogging their new books. Turn on the TV, forgodssake! Even my hero Stephen Colbert hosts writers on book tours. There's just no need to witness a book tour first hand, without the considerable safety offered by the MUTE button.

First – with some sense of deep misgiving – I heard Richard Ford read from his new novel, The Lay of the Land at Kepler’s Books down in Menlo Park. Then I heard Roz Chast (who is very likely my favorite cartoonist) in one of those NPRish “in conversation with” events at the Herbst Theater here in San Francisco.

Oh, both venues were exceedingly dangerous. Fraught with peril, you might say.

I can see that you’re looking at me funny. Dangerous? You probably see my basic point about butts and Barcaloungers and evolutionary trends. But really. Dangerous?

Emotionally, the worst thing you can do is to look around you at one of these things. These are your people. These are the people who read the same midlist fiction that you do and laugh at the same cartoons. Eeeewwwww.

Okay. So maybe what you do is squinch your eyes mostly shut – into little light-sensitive slits – and focus on the writer’s voice. It’s okay if you bump into a few people. They’re mostly not the type who’ll haul off and slug you. If you shuffle, you probably won’t squash anybody’s toes.

What I do, because I’m not so good at keeping my eyes squinched shut (except in the morning when I first wake up and stumble around owl-like with only one eye open), is I put my sweatshirt on backward, so the hood forms a natural barrier against unwelcome perceptions of my fellow audience members. That audience? They reflect on you. Limit the danger.

Got that? Hooded sweatshirt on backward. Okay? Hoodie on backward.

There I was at Kepler’s in Menlo Park with my hoodie on backward and my recently-purchased Lay of the Land clutched in my hand. Only because I was taking a new book into a bookstore, I concealed it in a plastic Safeway bag. At best, I always feel like I’m shoplifting, and this was even worse because I also looked like I was shoplifting. I was careful to put the receipt for the Lay of the Land in the Safeway bag with the new book in its perfect-condition dust jacket since I obviously didn't buy the book at Safeway. But still I could feel a halo of guilt radiating out of my head.

Good thing I had my sweatshirt on backward. That way no-one could see my guilty expression.

I didn’t shoplift this book. Honest! I did not shoplift this book.

I bought it at the Hudson Booksellers across from Gate A15 in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. I even asked the clerk – a young Hispanic guy with homemade tattoos on his hands – if any writers came through there on book tours to read from their new works and sign newly purchased copies. Yes, he told me, they did. We both mused on what a bummer it’d be to know that some jowly businessman was listening to you because he was on the delayed 7:48 American Airlines flight to Albuquerque which just so happened to leave out of Gate A17 and he had an hour to kill.

It’d be better to flog that book on the Colbert Report than to loiter in the DFW Hudson’s on a Wednesday night when thunderstorms are threatening to send everyone scurrying for rooms at the DFW Hyatt (or the DFW Day's Inn, for the less fortunate). Even if Stephen was getting snarky at your expense, you'd be better off. Much better off.

If you were already signing books at the Hudson's in Terminal A, would you go sign books at the Hudson’s in Terminal C then too? Or would you be competing with Sue Grafton there? Maybe you could draw in the overflow crowd from Auntie Anne's Pretzels or the Manchu Wok.

A Pulitzer Prize winner like Richard Ford isn’t likely to be reading at the DFW Hudson’s though. Good thing. You probably couldn’t get through DFW security with your sweatshirt on backward so the hood covered your face. Or maybe you could, so long as your salves, lotions, and creams fit into a regulation quart Ziplock bag. (Damn! I’m still mourning the loss of my French toothpaste. Damn! Why didn't I smuggle it on? Damn!)

The funny thing is Richard Ford looks and sounds exactly like you’d imagine Frank Bascombe to look and sound. He must know that. In fact, he explained that he sent an aide out to research the prostate cancer stuff so we wouldn’t all think that he himself secretly had cancer. I peeked over my hood for just a second to take a look at him, careful not to take in the overall demographic of my fellow Richard Ford readers.

I even asked a softball question when he was done reading the entirety of the initial segment called, "Are You Ready to Meet Your Maker?" Just to hear my voice followed by his voice.

“Why is Frank Bascombe a realtor,” I asked him. Can you imagine? Thank god my voice was muffled by my identity-concealing hood. I sat with my Safeway bag crackling on my lap, listening to him give exactly the answer I expected. Mumblety-stuff about the quintessential American-ness of selling houses to people. But he was nice enough about it. He even signed my book and listened patiently to my little narrative about buying my copy at the DFW Hudson’s in Terminal A, right by Gate A15.

After that, I beat it out of Kepler’s fast, Safeway bag, Hudson's receipt, and signed copy of Lay of the Land in hand, thudding into other customers as I bumbled toward the door. Not very good visibility through the black sweatshirt hood. The fleece was starting to congest my nasal passages too.

In case you're wondering, I did remember to re-orient my sweatshirt before I got back into my car.

I’m safety-minded.

I'm safety-minded in addition to obsessing over my obliviousness and fetishizing my privacy.

It was raining on the night we went to see Roz Chast. I blew into San Francisco's Herbst Theater lofted by the stylish leopard-spotted umbrella that Marcia gave me for my last birthday. I'm sure I looked a bit like a soggy Mary Poppins with her sweatshirt on backward. Only different. This time the hood kept the annoying rain spatters off my face in addition to keeping me from examining my fellow audience members.

Roz Chast was great. We were in the back section of the balcony in the nosebleed seats. Her voice was perfect. Reedy. New York-y. Hyper. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. I was completely irritated when the moderator (Dave Eggers) turned to the audience for questions.

“Shut up!” I wanted to tell the people in the audience who don’t wear their sweatshirts hood-forward. “Shut up! Let her talk about whatever she wants to talk about. Let her tell us about how when she gets lost she just gives up and tells herself, ‘guess I’d better find an apartment here. I’ll never find my way back home.’ Don’t interrupt her!”

How can the audience ask someone like Roz Chast their dumb-ass questions about her creative process?

“What color pencil do you draw with?”

Geeks. Shut up. Just let Roz Chast do all the talking.

“Who’s your own favorite cartoonist?”

Shut up! They must shut up. They can’t ask these stupid, stupid questions of someone who got a job at the New Yorker without knowing who Mr. Shawn was. This is not Richard Ford qua Frank Bascombe. This is Roz Chast.

And Roz Chast is perfect.

Yet she’s so easy to identify with. She even admits to that eccentric fear of horses that guarantees you’ll be a social misfit as a preteen girl. I remember when my own friends were in that horse-y phase, when they’d doodle horses in their notebooks and all the talk would be about horses, horses, horses.

“My uncle Mike says he’s going to get me a horse and board her in his stables. I’m going to call her Midnight/Star/Misty/Velvet and ride her every day.”

Now I find it fascinating that preteen girls give horses names that are so very similar to porn star names. But then – back in my chicklet years – I thought horses were scary, almost as scary as dogs, tempered by the fact that even though they were bigger than dogs, at least horses were vegetarians and probably didn’t eat humans. Or at least not very often. It would've made the newspapers if they did.

“She’s like me!” I thought. “I bet she always gets crumby seats too because she doesn’t want to buy tickets early so she has to choose two seats from among the thousands that are still available. I bet she buys tickets late. When there are only two seats left together. Just like I do.”

Of course, Roz Chast can draw funny prancing horses with big smiles on their long horse-y faces, but I figure that’s why she’s on stage and I’m in almost the last row of the balcony, in the dark.

With my sweatshirt on backwards.

I still believe that it’s not a good idea to thwart evolution and leave a seated position. Except if you get a chance to see Roz Chast. Then it’s worth it.

Don’t ask her any questions though, okay?

I’ll know who you are right away because you’ll be the other person with your sweatshirt on backward. Busted!


Anonymous Jaina Bee said...

I thought I was the only one with the sweatshirt trick!

Hey! Thanks for the word/image contributions. The novel came out completely WRONG. I love it!

9:57 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

The sweatshirt trick works well to cover up a runny nose, I'm finding. Or as a way to hide that one is having a bad face day, but a good hair day.

Is the novel finished? Can we see?

6:35 AM  

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