The microphone was handed over heads and around chairs...as people craned their necks to see...and even before the painful reality of the moment set in, Lovely #1 was given the microphone. Now, mind you, Lovely #1 was a man. But no matter -- he met all of the Lovely contingent criteria. While he may not have been applying lipgloss and clacking about the arctic courtyard in his high heels and formal short shorts, he was playing with his hair-gelled hair, secretly wondering if his highlights were still showing and worrying about the cut and colour of his cashmere sweater. Possibly, he even had a dab of Khiel's lip balm on. It was hard to tell from my front/centerish seat.
Feigning intelligence with a low, serious, challenging tone, Lovely #1 said something like: "You mention that you go to church in the piece you just read. Religion plays an important role in my life. I'm wondering what role religion plays in your life, what it means to you, and how it applies to your work." Now. I won't just come out and say this is a bad question. I'm just going to say that with only ten minutes for a full question & answer session -- with a writer who rarely appears in public -- it would seem that asking him the meaning of the universe or why the sky is blue might not be the best course one could take. It would seem a bit...hogging the writerish. But that's just me. The audience, however, did seem to agree with my reasoning. There were audible groans. Most notably, from Mr. DFW himself. This is when I started to just plain swoon (smitten as a by-product).
DFW (not an exact quote, obviously): Well, hmmm. (Eye rolling, a bit of mock shock and mostly, looking at us like "You see! THIS is why I don't like to do readings!): Why don't I just ask what role religion plays in your life. Kind of like saying "ditto" to you. Sort of like a test. They always give you a sample answer on tests. Why don't you give me a sample answer of what you're looking for and then I'll answer...because clearly depending on the role religion plays in your life, you are going to be looking for a specific kind of answer from me. I'd hate to get it wrong.
The audience was a bit surprised. DFW is sassy. There's no other way to say it. His quick quip drew smiles and laughter. Also, a bit of nervousness. How was Lovely #1 going to reply? I hoped he would laugh a bit too. Realize the silliness of such a serious question in this venue. But, of course, as the Lovelies take themselves WAY too seriously, he replied, in earnest (can you feel the collective cringe?): "Well, I'm not religious per se...but religion is very important to me. All of my friends and all of my family are very liberal people, and I agree with most of what they say. Yet...yet. Well. Um. (Here people started sitting up in their seats, friends were rolling eyes at friends. No one could believe this guy was really going to spend our ten minutes thinking aloud....but it appeared that was what he intended to do.) Yet....well....um. Well. I think its important to spend time among people who see things differently from you, to find a community outside your own community, if you will. Even if you don't believe every tenet of religion, that community is important. Seeing how other people are joined together by something that you question is important to me." (And, yes, as you may have guessed, some Lovelies have a depth we cannot anticipate. The cliche of not judging a book by its cover and all that...)
DFW: Ditto. (Audience laughs loudly.) No, really ditto. I asked for sample answer and your answer is how I would have answered. (More audience laughter. Then...) Gosh, I guess I just killed it for anyone else who was going to ask a question right? I won't answer them all like that.
Now, I get the point. It DID surprise me to learn that DFW went to church on a regular basis, although he does mention in the piece he read from that in Bloomington, Illinois, there are so many churches "there are even churches for agnostics." I found it surprising that someone so clearly liberal in so many ways would find community in a church. My own strong feelings aside, and not willing to incite any religious wars in blogdom or elseware, I thought this exchange was interesting. What I realized was that as cheeky as DFW was with his "ditto", he did agree with this person. Which was unexpected. Because as soon as Lovely #1 asked the question, we all hated him. Hair-gelled-lovely ruining all the fun with some question -- to a liberal writer -- about church! But then, strangely, DFW made it work. And I glimpsed, for a second, the workings of the man that he is. He seeks understanding and community in unexpected places, looking to understand those that he does not understand. Perhaps now you see why I swoon. Then the funny comment about more questions. Swoon. Swoon. Swooning.
With the first uncomfortable question out of the way, the audience relaxed. Maybe now we would get to proper stuff like writing process and influences and inspirations. Yet as a hybrid of Lovely + Hollywood Type raised his hand, it quickly became clear that was not to be. Lovely (masquerading as hollywood type) #2: "You know, I listen to you now and I hear you say you go to church...but...I don't see any evidence of your religious views in your writing." The audience audibly groaned at this point...even the other Lovelies realized this was too much. The man comes down from the mountain (no religious pun intended) to give a reading, a brilliant reading from his brilliant work...and you are badgering him about his religious beliefs#?!?#?!@@?! Lovely #2 went on: "You know, I've read everything you've ever written (lovely masquerading as hollywood type masquerading as booklugger) and I can't think of one instance in which you address religion at all. Why do you think that is?"
The attitude. The swagger. The righteousness. I was stunned. If people treat DFW like this, how do they treat Richard Paul Evans (whose writing, I, personally, do despise and I'm not afraid to say it.) The whining. The snot-nosed I-know-your-work-better-than-you-do vibe was too much. Perhaps DFW incites this kind of attitude because he is difficult to understand, requires much of his readers?
DFW seemed to agree: Actually, you are wrong. I won't go into too much detail for those who either didn't read it or who won't get the reference, but in Infinite Jest, I believe there is a character who struggles with religion and praying and realizing that what he has prayed for doesn't happen. He then has to deal with his disillusionment. That pretty much tracks with my own life experience with religion.
Lovely #2 has the gall to actually mumble under his (microphoned) breath: Hmmm, I don't see it. I've read everything, and I don't see it at all.
Shock and awe (to borrow a phrase from our "presidency") prevailed. Even the i'm-just-here-to-be-seen people in the audience knew this was too much. You can't sass the writer. Can you? I certainly wouldn't. The whole thing seemed to have gotten off track somehow. I began to hope that the hip Hammer museum people in their black clothing, hand-hammered necklaces and hemp caps could suss out the situation and hand the mike to someone with some sense...but...no. Lovely #3 was handed the microphone. The audience waited. Hoping that we could, finally, get on with it now. Surely after two religious questions and DFW's reactions, even the most inane person could see we needed to get to the meat of it now. We only had mere minutes left.
Lovely #3: "What do you have to say about the latest James Frey controversy?"
Um, let me get this straight. We are here to talk about HIS work -- the work of David Foster Wallace -- the man who is actually standing at the front of the room, after reading his OWN work...and you want to talk about someone else's work, someone else's book? It was so self-important too. As if she was just trying to prove that she knew how to read a newspaper. But DFW got her back.
DFW (again, all quotes are vaguely recollected): Hmmm. Well. I've not read the book at all. So you are asking me to comment on something that I'm not familiar with. Having said that, I, well. Hmmm. I don't want to speak out of turn. I, I'm not in a position to....hmmm. He struggled here. Harumphed a bit.
If I swooned before, it was here that I just plain fell in love with him in earnest. If you take away anything from his writing, anything from who he is as a person...it should be this: He cares so much about speaking clearly, accurately...precisely. He will stop in the middle of a sentence to correct a word and insert another instead. Another word that is just a tad more accurate, more precise. Writers, take note. This is what writing is about. We have all the words in the universe available to us. We must choose the ones that best suit the moment, the meaning we are trying to convey. DFW is a living example of this.
DFW continued: If you are talking about the line between fiction and memoir, there definitely is one. With journalists, for example, there is a very distinct one and whole teams of lawyers exist to ensure that line is not crossed. But if you are talking about memoir and thinking about how one can look back on their life and accurately remember every detail correctly -- what colour shirt they wore that day and what the sun looked like -- you would have to be foolish to expect every single detail to be 100% accurate in an autobiography. There is a line there, but there is also a relationship with the reader. You have to be careful. But see, now, you have me talking about a book which I haven't read. Talking about something I don't know. Giving second hand information. This is how much I don't know about this book: someone I care about listened to it on CD.
Lovely #3 continued (yes! continued! don't these people understand the etiquette of the writer Q/A in which they are only allowed one question, not one question with sub-questions?):"So you don't have any comment on Frey's denouncing 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous in his book even though people who are reading his book are using it as a way to get through addiction themselves?" Now, it could be just me, but she seemed to be implying that the 12-step stuff should have particular resonance with DFW. It was odd. Combative, even. And either way, huh? Are you seriously asking this question? Perhaps you think you are at a different reading. One, possibly, involving James Frey? At this point, whole sections of the audience had their mouths wide open in horror. Strangers were rolling their eyes at each other.
DFW: "Has any 12-step program gone on record about this book and their concern?"
Lovely #3: "No."
DFW: "Why do you think that is?"
Lovely #3: "Um. Um."
DFW: I'm thinking the "Anonymous" part has something to do with it.
I'll say it again. DFW is sassy. The audience laughed. Lovely #3 did not. She probably turned red but it was tough to tell with all that makeup. DFW said something about her being so much younger than him so she probably wouldn't understand. She cut him off and said "No, I'm older than you." He then quipped "Hmm. You are well-preserved then." Much laughter ensued. True to his writerly need for accuracy in words, DFW did me proud. Preserved was the most correct word he could have used, implying both a well-kept-botoxness yet also a deadness...as a corpse can be deemed well-preserved upon burial. She was lifeless and he knew it. His phrasing was subtle yet not. She took it as a complement, yet he implied something more sinister. I wanted to kiss him.
With two minutes left, the audience scanned the crowd. Hammer-museum guy held the microphone up and cocked his head to one side as if to ask, without speaking, if anyone else had a question. It was clear they were wrapping things up. My heart was beating quickly. Pounding in my ears. Should I ask a question? Surely we couldn't leave without someone asking something of value, interest, intrigue? Something worthy of the writer's response. But what would I ask? What would I say? I had been so busy silently communing with DFW and rolling my eyes at the Lovelies that I didn't have a proper thought in my head. I shot my arm up anyway. Smitten + love clearly equals insanity. Hip Hammer-guy locked eyes with mine and began making his way through the crowd, microphone held high...