Monday, September 26, 2005

The New Yorker Festival wrapup: Never too warm for a tweed blazer

One of the great joys of early Autumn in New York is the The New Yorker Festival, where even barely functionally literate fart joke enthusiasts like myself can play culture snob and drop names like a carriage horse in Central Park. Also, potential for free booze.

Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Nicole Krauss, one half of the NY literary power couple, and former Ayatolla mancrush Salman Rushdie read from their then yet-unpublished novels, despite not understanding what the fuck was going on in "Shalimar the Clown" or having heard of Krauss before [Good lord, that's a run-on sentence if I ever saw one - Ed].

For Friday Fiction Night this year, I picked A.M. Homes and Jeffrey Eugenides. Though there were sexier pairings - Chabon/King, Smith/Franzen and Krauss/McEwan - I didn't love "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" or "The Corrections" the way I did "Middlesex" (and don't get me started on "The Twenty-Seventh City").

I went in unfamiliar with A.M. Homes and I gotta say, left unimpressed. Well crafted, smart and funny, sure. But I don't know, maybe she's a little too smart for my taste? Some authors can get away with the smarty pants (Palahniuk and Eggers, though not always, come to mind). It didn't help that just as she started reading, the two men sitting on the next table waved rather unsubtly to their friends across the room, kicking my ADD into overdrive. I only recovered about 5 minutes into her 20 minute reading. So yeah, missing the setup and exposition and shit can kill your enjoyment of a passage a bit.

Eugenides read from his third novel that will come out sometime next year and I believe the chapter he read will appear on next week's New Yorker. But don't take my word for it. It's well crafted, smart, funny and, well, promising.

I found the subsequent Q&A almost as enlightening as the reading. As a frustrated writer, I always appreciate insight into how other real authors find their voice. Two things I learned Friday night:
  1. The writing of "Middlesex" began with the love scene between Callie and The Obscue Object. Everything else developed from there.
  2. For the car factory scenes, Eugenides essentially translated Diego Rivera's murals into words.

These points might seem inconsequential but at least for me, it tells me that (a) Just because you start writing based on one theme, that theme will not necessarily be the focus of the novel. I have to just write and let everything figure itself out, and (b) inspiration is where you look - too often, I fixate too much on my own experiences and other writers for reference points. What I forget is that writing has to be more than mere words on a page - the writer's responsibility is to make the reader see and hear things in their minds.

Saturday, I actually had tickets for "Anarchy and Animation" with Brad Bird, Matt Stone, Trey Parker et al but decided to unload the tickets earlier in the week because, as much as I enjoy celebrity gawking, I realized I wasn't all that interested in the subject. Turned out to be the right move, as the taking the afternoon off gave me the chance to deal with personal life issues, eat some damn good Vietnamese, take a much needed nap and rock out to "Behind These Hazel Eyes".

Saturday night was the main event for me, as I decided on The Roots and Malcolm Gladwell over Ricky Gervais. I initially had the case of the buyer's remorse since The Roots have only disappointed my recently and you don't often get a chance to hear Gervais talk live. By the end of the night, I was over my apprehension.

Aside - my lovely companion and I had this crazy idea to walk from the Lower East Side to 10th Ave/21st St. We managed to make it in time, but we missed out on the complimentary Grey Goose. Probably a good thing since we were on empty stomachs, though we could've used some liquid refreshment.

The event started with Gladwell interviewing ?uestlove, Black Thought and band manager Richard Nichols about the current state of hip hop and the band's career trajectory. Nothing too unexpected - the themes throughout the conversation were hip hop's post-2Pac/Biggie commercial explosion and nihilism, the Reaganomics-inspired winner-take-all mentality and minstrelsy as an unavoidable part of black entertainment.

Gladwell's questions either answered themselves or were superficial, though really, we were there for the music. Less talk, more music would've been nice but cultural beggars can't be choosy. For the record, the Roots are not big fans of Li'l Jon. And if you're wondering who had the bigger afro on stage, Questo's was bigger than Gladwell's, but not by much.

After the conversation and Q&A, the rest of the Roots joined Black Thought and ?uestlove on stage for some jamming. Now, throughout the first half of the event, Black Thought said very little, answering only when directly addressed and letting Nichols and ?uesto answer most of the questions, odd for the voice of a band.

But once the band took their places and he pulled his Yankees hat low, he was on. Surprising as it is, Saturday night's set, was the tightest I've heard them in a while, even with a decidedly non-hip hop audience and martini glasses smashing every few minutes.

Maybe it was because they had no illusions about the crowd's willingness to wave their arms in the air and say "Ho". Or it was the abbreviated set that forced them to just play the songs and showboat less. The Roots hit their stride in the middle with "Concerto of the Desperado" and "Mellow My Man", and ended rather abruptly, but on a high note with "The Next Movement"

The show also gave me a chance to be close enough to stage to watch ?uestlove, whose beats often sound like they could only come from a drum machine. That alone would have been worth the price of admission, and made the whole weekend.

Posted on Flickr by Frost Bites

I am a little disappointed I missed this:

Posted on Flickr by Jordan Davis

How often do you get to see Ani DiFranco and Rza sitting side by side?

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