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.
FIGURING THAT WAS ENOUGH of Bill Wubber the Fifth, I escaped across the room to check out the merchandise and grab free copies of the Nation (all of 2004's back issues were prominently displayed). The bestselling item, I found out, was a T-shirt with a silkscreen of President Bush in a fedora (no one I asked could explain why it wasn't a cowboy hat) with the American flag and guns rising out of the brim and tiny Texas longhorns on top, captioned "Mad Cowboy Disease."
While examining the merchandise, I felt myself embraced and turned around to find Wubber, a tear streaming down his face and his nose running. "You know," he confided as I tried to slip away, "the world is in the wrong place."
Certainly I wondered if I was in the wrong place. Wonder boy Dave Eggers, who makes up for his lackluster prose with self-promotional genius, was, when his turn came to speak, more stand-up comic than author, improvising new jokes while reading his funny if banal story about a stoner who solves the world's problems. "I have to take credit for reducing our dependence on oil and for beginning the Age of Wind and Sun . . . Your uncle Frank came up with that name. He always wanted to be in a band and call it that but he never learned guitar and couldn't sing." That Eggers's improvised riffs improved the work doesn't speak well for the shape it was originally in.
This preference for tone over craft was also exposed in the authors who spoke in incantatory cadences, notably Michael Cunningham and Jennifer Egan. Both sounded as though they belonged at some poetry open-mike evening, where mellifluousness is at least as important as prose. Egan, who writes for the New York Times's magazine, distinguished herself with the vacuity of her condemnation of suburban normalcy, writing sentences like "Doesn't every family love having one person f--ed up so fantastically that everyone else feels good next to him," employing a narrator who says things like "Where was I? Oh yeah . . ." and taking NYU as her stale symbol of rebellious self-exploration.
Paul Auster, who at least read straight, offered the opening from yet another novel about Brooklyn written for Manhattanites, mentioning Park Slope's La Bagel Delight--then interrupting the reading to brag, "that's a real place," as though he were Melville reporting his experiences on a cannibal island. Joyce Carol Oates introduced a poem shaped like a kite by asking the audience to "imagine a neon crimson sort of lurid pulsing dollar sign, which is of course a symbol of our culture." The hideous Gary Indiana, decked out in a Red Army Fraction T-shirt and a bizarre scarf, read a poem "inspired by Mel G" called "Why I Took It Up the Ass from Twelve Apostles" (incredibly, the poem was in even worse taste than the title suggests), which was received with raucous laughter.
WITH SO MUCH DROSS, the few quality readings stood in sharp relief. Colson Whitehead, the only reader to bother with a suit and tie, read an advertisement for grudges that suggested a return to the intelligence and discipline that marked his debut novel, The Intuitionist. Wendy Wasserstein, the only reader besides Rushdie to address the present political scene, read from an engaging new play about an attractive and angry middle-aged professor with an intense hatred for traditional interpretations of King Lear.
Jonathan Franzen (after an awkward introduction in which Foer seemed to pick a fight with him) mentioned Joshua Micah Marshall's website "Talking Points Memo" and then paused in expectation of applause, only to stare into a crowd of dull and blank faces that clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Still, he gave an impressive reading, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, the night's final reader, in whose story a narrator recalls from her childhood the courtship between her mother, a Bangladeshi in an arranged marriage, and a friend of the family.
What's perhaps most curious about all of this is that in more than four hours of speeches and readings, I didn't hear Iraq mentioned once. "There is no more important cause in the world right now than getting Bush out of office," Jonathan Safran Foer declared to open the second half of the event--a sentiment repeated almost verbatim by many of the other authors. But exactly why, no one could say. Writers typically know about as much about politics as politicians know about literature. But there's something disconcerting about a baker's dozen of them coming together for an event devoted to how evil Bush is and how important it is to defeat him--and not one of them explaining why we face what several speakers insisted was "the most important election ever."
Bill Wubber the Fifth should have been on stage, for only he expressed concisely and poetically the sad theme of the evening's lament of original sin: "The world is in the wrong place." Hour after hour from America's most-celebrated writers in the Cooper Union's Great Hall, and that's about all the evening boiled down to.
The world is in the wrong place, indeed.
Harry Siegel, editor of NewPartisan.com, is writing a book on gentrification in New York.