December 12, 2011 | by David Zax
On a recent Sunday evening, in a lounge at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan, the writers Kurt Andersen and Anne Kreamer enacted before an audience the final pages of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, a 1971 work of literary pastiche by the author Frederic Tuten. Andersen played the role of Chairman Mao, sitting for a fictitious interview. “Have you seen Godard’s La Chinoise?” asked Kreamer, playing his interlocutor. “Have you seen Dali’s Mao/Marilyn?” “Chairman Mao, perhaps I might ask your opinion on birth control.” Tuten himself, a septuagenarian in a black blazer, sat at the front of the room, beaming with happiness at the event held in his honor.
If you have not heard of The Adventures of Mao, you would not have been out of place at its marathon reading. Indeed, some of those who gathered to participate in the reading—a roster including Lydia Davis, Wallace Shawn, Walter Mosley, John Guare, and Edmund White—admitted to having had only a glancing familiarity with the novel or its author. Yet The Adventures of Mao, about, as the title suggests, the Chinese dictator’s rise to power, has always had its advocates; Susan Sontag called it “soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.” In 1972, the book achieved that pinnacle of literary attention, the John Updike New Yorker review. Analyzing the novel’s five distinct modes—textbooklike history of the Long March; ample direct quotation from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; passages of literary parody of authors such as Kerouac and Malamud; “normal novelistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations”; and, finally, that extended interview with Chairman Mao—Updike declared the resulting sum “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.”
Despite Mao’s champions over the decades—New Directions embalmed it as one of its classics in 2005—the event at the Jane Hotel was in some ways an unlikely one. It had all begun in the Strand Bookstore, where three men in their twenties stumbled upon the book and brought it to their book club. Read More »
October 27, 2011 | by David Zax
For Rita Dove, it was an unusual Saturday. It began ordinarily enough: Dove had spent the afternoon at the Academy of American Poets, where she is one of fifteen “chancellors.” By 8 P.M., though, the day had taken a strange turn, and Dove, who is fifty-nine, found herself in the basement of the Chinatown Brasserie, sitting in a recessed booth illumined by a red lantern, looking out over five poker tables ringed with players who had each paid $1,500 just for the privilege to sit there.
“I’m terrified of those tables,” she said. Even so, she added, referring to poets, “We’re supposed to be open to new experiences, so here I am.”
She was by no means the only noteworthy author present. At one table sat the novelist Walter Kirn; at another, the comedian, writer, art collector, and banjoist Steve Martin; at a third, the novelist Amy Tan, the evening’s host. Her invitation to the poker tournament had begun, “This may be one of the most unusual dinner invitations you’ll ever receive.” Read More »
April 26, 2011 | by David Zax
Last Saturday evening, before a small audience gathered in the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, a man named Salty repeatedly slapped a man named Dan.
“Less on the chin, more on the cheek!” cried Dan Safer, a choreographer, standing inside the masking-taped square that had been marked off as the stage and steeling himself for yet another blow. With a red bandanna tied around his neck, Safer sported muttonchops, a handlebar mustache, and tattoos that ran the length of his arms.
The fellow named Salty obliged, smacking Safer again and again until Safer’s face turned bright red and he grew dizzy, widening his stance to stable himself. “I love you!” blurted Salty, a slight blond figure in maroon corduroys and a yellow-and-blue-striped tie, after landing a particularly fierce slap.
“How we doing on time there, Rob?” Safer now asked of Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House and the emcee of the night’s event, programmed by the French cultural institute Villa Gillet for an ongoing series called Walls and Bridges. Spillman had been conscripted as timekeeper for the current “piece.” He stood off to the side, a reluctant accomplice in this sustained act of public sadomasochism.