Lit Seen: A Report From the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival


It’s helpful to remember—as Rolling Stone‘s David Lipsky did Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival—that the panel which began the day, “The Legacies of John Updike and David Foster Wallace,” was not the first time the two men had crossed paths. Many recall “Certainly the End of Something or Other,” the acid review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time that Wallace published in the New York Observer in 1997. Fewer have read Rabbit Resurrected, the comic and eerily mimetic mock sequel to Rabbit at Rest that Wallace wrote for Harper’s in 1992, in which Rabbit finally dies and heads off to the afterlife, although not without first re-experiencing “every sensuous experience he’d ever had.” Here’s Rabbit, leaving this mortal coil:

He is alone, rising erect in the cerulean space above the dazzling frozen gauze of the clouds—boiling, radiant, motionless, terrible, silent, and clumped. . . . Would there be vaginas where he was going, vaginas finally freed from the shrill silly vessels around them, bodiless, pungent, and rubicund, swaddled in angelic linen or straining plump around some Unitarian G-string? The odd breast or two, detached, obliging?

Also: Can I keep my prick in heaven?

Saturday was the one-year anniversary of Wallace’s death, of course. Anyone who went to last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival will recollect vividly the Los Angeles Times piece that broke the news. “What was a party,” said LA Times book editor David Ulin, when his paper tracked him down at a National Book Critics Circle meeting in New York, “is now a wake.” One year later, Ulin was back, hosting an evaluation of the writer’s legacy alongside that of the other literary titan who died in the past year, John Updike, the man Wallace famously branded as a “Great Male Narcissist.” In the Observer, Wallace wrote: “When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.” Everything didn’t, it turned out—though for a while, the absence of both men seemed a lot to bear.

There’s something both unfortunate and reassuring in the fact that the Brooklyn Book Festival—a cheery, sunkissed celebration of literary life in New York—shares its anniversary with the death of one of literature’s leading lights. At least, at some small remove, Wallace is free to be funny again. Updike drew that side out of him, and Sunday’s panel—Ulin, Lipsky, Time‘s Lev Grossman, and Salon’s Laura Miller (who confessed to an “overwhelming and complete indifference” to Updike and his subject matter)—was mostly a warm remembrance of two virtuoso writers who shared, if nothing else, a penchant for detail and the instinct to go for a joke whenever possible.

One other anniversary worth noting: the brief triumph of Sarah Palin, who, two weeks into her selection as John McCain’s running mate at this time last year, had Obama and his constituency—e.g., the BBF’s doleful masses—at perhaps their single lowest point in 2008. “The Consequences to Come” was the ominous name of the New York Review of Books panel that ended the ’08 festival. “We approach this election with no clear idea where bottom is,” noted Joan Didion, “what damage has been done, what alliances have been formed and broken, what concealed reefs lie ahead.” It was left to NYRB contributor Darryl Pinckney to salvage our hopes: “I refuse to freak out.”

The 2009 version? Pinckney starring on an NYRB panel entitled “Writers on Unforgettable Friendships,” chronicling his complicated relationship with Djuna Barnes at a table that also included Anita Desai (on Ruth Jhabvala), Oliver Sacks (on Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix), and NYRB steward Robert Silvers. Suits, ties, patrician accents, esoteric pursuits—order, at least in this room, had been restored.

Writers will always complain, sure, but at least the stakes were familiar again. “The future of literary fiction is co-writing vampire and/or zombie novels with famous directors,” T Cooper said earlier in the day, at a Richard Nash–hosted summit about contemporary challenges to the novelist. (He then passed along some advice for the audience from his agent: “Buy fucking new books.”) Also discussed, courtesy of n+1‘s Keith Gessen: the end of book reviews, the rise of the Twitter novel, and the perils of trying to sell your book by selling readers—per the publisher’s demand—yourself. But, as Cooper also pointed out, “people have been trying to send fiction to the sick room for 50 years.” And the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival, which sported 220 authors, 30,000 attendees, and 10 crowded stages over eight dense hours, was a curious place to make the argument that literature is something people no longer care about.

What the BBF more accurately represents is an annual victory lap for the borough’s authors—Brooklynite Paul Auster, reading from his forthcoming Invisible alongside Russell Banks and Francine Prose; Queens-born Victor LaValle, pushing his underrated 2009 gem Big Machine; and Colson Whitehead, author of both a Times essay titled “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It” and, more recently, the ace novel Sag Harbor. “The book is not that interesting,” noted Whitehead from a Borough Hall stage. “Nothing really happens in it.” He then proceeded to read one of Sag Harbor‘s more “suspenseful” passages, about the time its protagonist, Benji, gets a haircut.

Brooklyn, home to Whitehead, Auster, Lethem, et al., is also, of course, home to Jay-Z and dozens of other rappers and, in a canny move, the festival organizers saw fit this year to acknowledge the borough’s other major cultural export. “Poetry, Pop, and Hip-Hop,” which brought together Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, the Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, poet and Wave Books proprietor Matthew Zapruder, and slam-poetry veteran Tracie Morris, was a surprisingly fluid examination of the links between the genres, though Lupe did not—to the loud chagrin of the rows of fanatical teenagers that ruled at the front of the auditorium—go so far as to demonstrate the craft.

That was left to, of all people, Mary Gaitskill, whose plan, it emerged, was to scuttle the festival’s scheduled closing conversation between Jonathan Lethem and herself in favor of an hour-long (turned 30-second) rendition of Brooklyn-based joke-rap duo Das Racist’s recent Internet smash “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Lethem, alas, was unfamiliar with the song, but Gaitskill, undeterred, went it alone, doing the maddening hook as faithfully as a dreamy 54-year-old former downtown writer could manage. Another year, and maybe the Das Racist guys will get their own panel, too.