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Friday, May 15, 2009

Thing 150: Politics and Prose

"We're going to have a reading tonight," Colson Whitehead told those assembled. "It will be fun, edifying, and very, very post-black." He gives the final two words grave emphasis. The audience laughs knowingly, because they all read the New York Times Review of Books religiously.

Welcome to nerd paradise. I am right at home.

Politics and Prose is indeed a paradise for bookworms and intellectuals, an oasis in the dry landscape of chain bookstores. This is among the last of the feisty breed known as the independent bookstore, and one of the reasons they stay relevant is by hosting really excellent authors of both fiction and non, on a regular basis. They also have a great, great selection of books (hard for me to not buy everything I lay my eyes on) and a cafe downstairs. I can't speak personally for the coffee or food, but the coffee in the audience smelled amazing, which is a good sign.

I was excited to be there to see Colson Whitehead, and author I much admire, in particular for his first book, The Intuitionist, which I still think about when I'm in an elevator. In a rather slim novel he spun an alternate reality in which elevator inspectors formed a brotherhood, an exclusive clique, and the two competing schools of inspection were at constant odds. It sounds convoluted, even silly, but the end product was a rich and beautiful metaphor for race in America.

Now he read from Sag Harbor, his newest book, and what he calls "autobiographical" (not quite an autobiography, and certainly not a memoir. As he told us in answer to a question I asked "It would be so easy to write a proposal if I was in a plane crash and had to eat the other people I was stranded with...So, when something real happens in my life, I'll write a memoir, but until then, I have to rely on other things."). Dressed in skinny, skinny hipster jeans, a vest and a tie, and long, thin dreadlocks, Whitehead kept us rapt and laughing, alternating between his strong, poetic prose, and his side comments that kept us laughing, especially his "VISUAL AID."

If you caught his piece of short fiction in the New Yorker, that was a chapter excerpted from the book. It's about a group of black teenage boys, who vacation on Long Island during the summer, spending the weeks by themselves while their parents are working in the city. They get into various shenanigans. That's about it. "You may have heard in some reviews," he told us, impishly, "there's not a lot of plot. Not a lot happens. Just like in Ulysses, by James Joyce. Except my book is shorter, so there's that."

He read two sections from the book, one about the glory and progress of frozen foods, the other about the haircuts his main character received from his father. What I was most struck by, which had escaped me when I read The Intuitionist, or Apex Hides the Hurt, or his short fiction, is that Colson Whitehead writes poetry. His words are forceful, each individually chosen for meaning, layers, sound, tone and cadence. When he reads, he reads with the crescendo of a poetry slammer, each line building and then abruptly fading away. Having written it himself, he is uniquely aware of the invisible line breaks, the ones that had to be sacrificed so his novel could be "fiction" and not "poetry." This is what's lost when reading is done silently, and to oneself. The beauty of the book reading is to hear the words spoken out loud, and learn something about the book, and the author in the process.

Related: Tony Bourdain reads from No Reservations and All Aunt Hagar's Children by DC's own Edward P. Jones


Happy Mommy To Be said...

I didn't even know places like this are still around... thought they were only in the movies. Great review, did you go to Oxford?