The Republican National Convention promises to be a circus, and not just because of the braying elephants and assorted clowns who will be under the big Madison Square tent: smart alecks like Billionaires Against Bush will be making performance art out of protest by dressing up and acting out in the streets (see our preview of the festivities here). Spiritually priming us for this hullabaloo, “State of Emergency: Unconventional Readings”—sponsored by those literary lefties comprising the PEN American Center—brought together 15 writers who read brief, evocative passages from great works by other writers. (Hear the event next week on pen.org.) The only clown there was Jonathan Safran Foer (more on him in a minute).
The warm and funny Salman Rushdie—the PEN prez credited the guests for the “heroic act of restraint of not reading from their own works”—welcomed the standing-room only crowd, who’d snaked around Cooper Union patiently waiting to get into the Great Hall, without beating around the Bush: “[t]errorism. . .is the great civilizational test of our time.” And the U.S., he asserted, is “failing” that test. (PEN’s agenda includes helping to defend public access to government information, to preserve free speech and personal privacy, and to push for U.S. policy asserting these rights here and abroad. But that’s it.)
With that for a backdrop (a lonesome American flag also drooped around its pole behind the podium), artist Laurie Anderson strode onstage and read, in a sometimes fluttery, sometimes liquid style, from Dave Hickey’s tremendous collection of essays on “art and democracy,” Air Guitar. Writer-screenwriter-director Paul Auster poetically rendered Thoreau’s essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which included the comparison of the unjust, media-controlled citizenry to a “dog that returns to its vomit.” The exquisite Don DeLillo—serene but for his shoulders, which twitched as if electrified by the text in his hands—recited “Report From a Besieged City,” a journalistic war narrative by Zbigniew Herbert that ends, “Only our dreams have not been humiliated.” Later, novelist Francine Prose gently read Herbert’s dreamlike account of the time leading up to a group’s execution by firing squad.
Inalienable rights like hope and humor mingled with anger and absurdity. Foer, obviously no hero, compiled Bushisms like “How many hands have a I shaked?” into a sometimes grimly funny but mostly indulgent display of Princeton pride (how writerly of him). Chilean poet, playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman, going to the heart of language and difference, highlighted a section of Don Quixote evoking Abu Ghraib, while alternating between Spanish and English. A.M. Homes even revitalized A Coney Island of the Mind. In closing, Rushdie read Cuban great José Martí for Francisco Goldman, who could not attend, and John Dos Passos for Norman Mailer (ditto), who picked just one line: “All right, then, we are two nations.” Red and blue, I presume. The grass seems greener over here.