Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading: John Wray

Readings are generally genteel affairs. With John Wray, however, all of those niceties disappeared: people walked in and out willy-nilly (sometimes nudging their way forward), people fought for seats, people wobbled and toppled into one another, and Wray spoke through a megaphone, a device you usually associate with political agitators or street preachers. Though you could chalk this up to the fact that the reading took place on the last car of the L train during rush hour, I'd argue that it's the decline of civility in Western society.

Still, a brilliant marketing move by the folks at FSG for Wray's new novel, Lowboy. One representative had a roll of Lowboy stickers on her arm like a giant spool of toilet paper. The crowd gathered at the far end of the 8th Ave. and 14th St. stop, a gang rumble of hipsters. But we were headed to Williamsburg, after all. And who doesn't love a well-appointed hipster boy? On the train, Wray read the opening of his novel, moving from one side of the car to the other, graciously allowing room for oncomers and get-offers. Just as the train started to pull away from 8th Ave., a guy yelled obscenties from between cars at someone still on the platform. In the six stops to Bedford Ave., Wray didn't make it too far in his reading, but there was a playful tone to the experience: Lowboy, which deals with a 16 year-old paranoid schizophrenic boy, makes the New York City subway a major set piece.

At Bedford Ave., the crowd shfited to Spike Hill, where Wray read another section of Lowboy, this time accompanied by a friend plucking suspended notes on his electric guitar. He read a letter written by the title character to his mother, emphasizing the ways in which paranoid schizophrenics wrap their heads around certain ideas and facts and then concoct a grander narrative around them. He managed to plug Dogfish Head, on tap at Spike Hill and flowing free for the crowd, by replacing Schlitz with it in a dirty joke. I think, however, that the passage works better on the page than read aloud. As Wray explained, letters of this sort have all sorts of strange typographical emphases: words randomly capitalized, words underlined multiple times, words in all caps. Part of the fascination is trying to uncover the thinking behind the emphasis. But, as strange and defamiliarizing as the language was, as read by the tall, calm and (presumptively) sane John Wray, the narrative voice sounded suspiciously like a guy who had just come off the subway.

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