Saturday, October 2, 2010

Coughing with Michael Chabon

The New Yorker Festival opened Friday, the annual three-day bonanza where famous authors, writers, directors, actors and editors sit on stages in front of large audiences and discuss their craft in theaters across the city. I'd never gone before. Usually I'd see an ad in the New Yorker touting the event, but I'd see it a week or two after tickets went on sale, which is what happens when the magazines pile up on a table in the living room. Finally this year I saw the ad in time. Two minutes after tickets went on sale, I bought a pair of them.

Sunday I'm attending a conversation between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Ian Frazier. Two of the best in nonfiction.

But on Friday I saw one of my writing idols, Michael Chabon. The author of Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, numerous other novels and a couple of nonfiction collections appeared onstage with fellow author Zadie Smith, another writer who can not be introduced at an event without the moderator throwing the word "acclaimed" before her name.

Smith read a nonfiction piece, a story about her father, a World War II veteran who didn't want to be known as a hero or brave, even though he was both.

Chabon followed. Instead of reciting passages from one of his famous books, he read a work in progress, a treat for those in the audience, many of whom have surely consumed all of his published words. The piece focused on a home birth. To describe it beyond that would be impossible, except to say all of Chabon's skills - from the descriptions to the humor to the incomparable word play - were on display.

About three-quarters of a way through Chabon's reading, I suddenly, inexplicably, horrifyingly, embarrassingly, choked. I wasn't drinking or eating. I didn't have any gum in my mouth. But somehow I found myself blurting out a cough, followed quickly by another and the feeling in my chest and throat let me know this would be a long coughing spell, which quickly devolved into a coughing fit. I left my seat almost immediately and retreated to the rear of the theater. It felt like a piece of popcorn had lodged in my throat, but the last time I ate popcorn was at a movie three weeks ago. If it was popcorn, I had more problems than a cough.

I coughed several more times in the back of the theater before finally going out the door to compose myself. Thankfully, another attendee took attention away from my mysterious medical issue. As I walked to the rear of the theater, I watched three people drag a young man who had fainted. They pulled him out into the waiting area, sat him in a chair and stayed with him until he recovered. Could have been the heat. Or maybe it was Chabon's graphic description of a bloody vagina that made the poor guy woozy. As brilliant as Chabon's writing is, a bloody vagina is still a bloody vagina. And, actually, because of Chabon's skills, the mental images are even clearer. I'm sure the guy blamed the heat.

My coughing stopped and I returned to my sixth-row seat for the question and answer session. One woman asked how the writers feel about fiction compared to nonfiction. Smith finds nonfiction easier to write, Chabon's the opposite. Another woman said she'd come all the way from Berkeley to see Chabon. It quickly became obvious - from her body language, longing in her voice and reluctance to leave the microphone, even after Chabon answered her question - that I didn't have to worry about being accused of being the attendee who would most likely stalk Chabon. If the moderator hadn't pointed to another person who had a question, the lady might still be standing there.

Like many in the audience, she was impressed by Chabon's ability to write about childbirth and wondered if there'd be an equivalent event that men go through. "Whaling," he said.

I walked to one of the two microphones and asked my question. I've spoken with other writers about Chabon's famous use of similes and metaphors. No one uses them like Chabon. They pop off the page, one after another, sometimes three or four in a paragraph. On a journalism board, during a discussion of similes, a few writers debated whether you should use a simile if it takes more than a few minutes to think of it. In other words, if you have to slave over it for too long, it's probably not any good. I asked Chabon what's it like for him. He conjures up phrases that no one else would think of, but after you've read them, it becomes impossible to imagine the person or event being described in any other way. He writes sentences I've memorized by heart, lines that should be required reading in all English classes and recited even before schoolchildren say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. In his review for The Yiddish Policemen's Union in New York Magazine, Sam Anderson listed some of Chabon's best lines:

The detective's ex-wife "accepts a compliment as if it's a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken." In a crowded apartment, two babies are "stashed away on the balcony like disused skis." Rain is "tossed in vandalistic handfuls at the windshield."

Similes! I was talking to Michael Chabon about similes. This is like asking Magic Johnson about the art of the half-court bounce pass. It's like asking Warren Buffett about investments. It's like...well, some other simile.

His answer? They're easy for him. When writing fiction, he might occasionally struggle with plotting the story or other big-picture situations. But those unique phrases that liven up every page of his books are practically effortless. I don't know for sure whether he believes a simile is worthless if you have to spend more than a minute thinking of it, but that's only because he's probably never done it himself.

The event lasted a little over an hour. On my walk back to the subway, I strolled in front of the poor guy who passed out at the event, as he asked his female companion what exactly happened. Nothing much. He fainted and had to be hauled out of a theater in front of a few hundred people while ushers and security looked at him with a mixture of pity and anxiety.

And he missed hearing the best writer of his generation read his work and discuss his craft.

No comments: