Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reading: Lydia Davis and Jonathan Lethem

So, if I wasn't intimidated by seeing one MacArthur Fellow, then two should really be no problem, especially when represented in the affable forms of Lydia Davis and Jonathan Lethem. As always, readings at the Philadelphia Free Library attracts a number of the city's homeless, who see the readings as an hour in a warm place where they can rest. And I don't fault them for that, as sometimes I, myself, have fallen asleep during readings. But I don't think I've ever snored, however...

Lydia Davis was promoting her mammoth new book of collected stories. But the genre term "story" doesn't necessarily apply to all of her work. Sometimes her pieces are short, pithy jokes; at other times, they seem like aphorisms or meditations or even poetry. They're stronger, I think, than Amy Hempel's often celebrated one-sentence stories, because of their cerebral nature. You turn them around in your head, and they seem to refract different aspects of your own experience.

That's not to say that the stories don't have an emotional component as well: though "Letter to a Funeral Home" seems like an extended meditation on the word cremains, it's wrapped in a painful examination of love and loss and couched in the tone of a letter of complaint. It's almost the perfect fusion of tone, emotion, and intellect pondering.

She ended her reading with new work, surprisingly enough. We were Lydia Davis' test kitchen! First out of the oven was a list story, a contemplation of identity centered around mis-sent mail. Something about it struck me as oddly hysterical, this list of mangled names, enunciated in Davis' precise and calm voice. And she ended with a recitation of dreams or dream-like situations. And although I'm always wary of dreams in fiction, that's usually reserved for dreams that appear within a larger context. But standalone dreams... well, it worked for Naguib Mahfouz...

And let's face it: Lydia Davis is a tough act to follow. Even for a beloved hipster (I use the term not disparagingly, but as a mere descriptor) author like Lethem. He read from Chronic City, which some may recall was savaged by Michiko Kakutani, and based on the selection from which he read, I can't exactly disagree with her. Okay, maybe following on the heels of such precise and gem-like stories, his work seemed much looser and unfocused, but I can confidently state that I did not snore. Instead, I was transfixed by his glasses, a translucent red plastic frame.

I wonder if the MacArthur foundation can out grants based on awesomeness of glasses alone.