The Magazine

The Againsters

New York's literati bemoan the Bush era.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By HARRY SIEGEL
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AMERICA'S MOST CELEBRATED WRITERS are against . . . well, it's hard to tell what exactly they are against. War, to some degree. President Bush, to a considerable extent. But, mostly, New York's literati gathered at Cooper Union's Great Hall last Thursday to announce that they were firmly, immovably against whatever anybody suggests being against. Republicans in the White House, American soldiers in the Persian Gulf, evangelical Christians in the heartland: There must be a wrongness somewhere deep at the root of the world to allow such things to exist, and whatever that wrongness is, the nation's hippest writers are against it. They said so, over and over again, and over and over and over again--until the mind dissolved in the deeply felt emptiness of it all.

Hosted by Jonathan Safran Foer, the lauded young author of Everything Is Illuminated, the all-star literary reading, sponsored by an artists' group raising money for Democratic candidates and causes, was called "Where's My Democracy?" Foer set the tone for the evening with his introductory recitation of platitudes: "At stake are the environment, our civil liberties, our courts (our right to choose, our privacy), the economy, the Constitution, and America's place in the world. . . . The writers I contacted [had] absolute consistency of feeling." Mixed in with all this were humorous, apparently improvisational asides: "We all know Democrats are smarter, better looking and taller than Republicans." Dressed in a gray sweater, jeans and sneakers, he was (like his book) more witty than intelligent.

But the event really began with a huge man, perhaps 6'4" and certainly well built, who had told me that his name was Bill Wubber the Fifth. As Foer went on with his cant--he's for children and against war--I spotted Wubber with a glazed look on his face and a backpack in his hands, walking towards the stage and sitting down in the aisle statue-still. After a moment, one of the women working the event approached him and placed her small hand on his large shoulder. No response. Her lips moved, but still nothing. Finally, she left and returned with a security officer, himself dwarfed by Wubber. Just before Foer introduced the night's special surprise guest, Salman Rushdie, Wubber stood up and went limp, and the guard dragged him from the room.

The last time I'd seen Rushdie, also at the Great Hall, I'd been excited to hear him speak, only to be forced to sit through endless stories relating all the famous people Rushdie had dined with and called by their first names, scarcely related to Italo Calvino, the great Italian writer his talk was supposed to celebrate. This time, Rushdie again lived up to his recent reputation as a man who prefers to date models, hang out with rock stars, and appear on Page Six than do serious work. While every other author save Lou Reed read from a work in progress, Rushdie read a three-year-old poem called "How the Grinch Stole America": So far the poor Grinch hadn't amounted to zip, / He just hadn't counted. It gave him the pip. / (His father! His eminent Dad! His own blood! / Compared to him, Grinchy had proved quite a dud.)

The crowd, unsurprisingly, laughed and clapped madly. Actually, they applauded every performance and laughed at every speaker. It reminded me of a Saturday night jazz set, where the couples on dates applaud each solo, too overawed by culture to make any critical distinctions. I find it hard to imagine any sane person taking equal enjoyment from Gary Indiana's clumsy vulgarities and Wendy Wasserstein's well-wrought bourgeois dramas, Paul Auster's bizarre racialisms and Jhumpa Lahiri's brilliant attention to detail. But the crowd at the all-star-author hootenanny was, like the readers, united more in a lifestyle than a political movement, more interested in literature as a scene than as an art form.

The empty againstness of it all gave me considerable time to think about my earlier encounter with Bill Wubber the Fifth. "I'm ready to sit down and hear the faith," he had explained when I asked, during the hour-long delay before the readings started, why he was at the $50-a-ticket event. In his early thirties, with shoulder-length hair and sunglasses resting on his forehead, double-fisting red and white wines in his immense hands, he seemed out of place amongst the young ironists in Alf trucker caps and matching androgynous haircuts. "I'm to the left of everything," Wubber went on, adding that his family were Republicans and that he was mixing the two wines "to get the proper buzz." Getting excited as he went on breathless and bouncing from thought to thought, he put his drinks down and moved in closer--his nose kept bumping mine--his arms flailing about my head for emphasis.