Literary Happenings: Colson Whitehead at McNally Jackson 10/20/2011

24 Oct

I love attending a reading at McNally Jackson in SoHo. It’s clean and bright and staffed by loads of smart young things, and they make a mean currant scone (although this time I had to branch out and try a cheddar cheese and chive scone, since they were all out of my fave – hallelujah! new fave!). I always overspend when I’m there, since I feel like my hard-earned dollars are going to a good cause (and I get a bright, shiny book or two or three out of the bargain).

McJ's gorgeous storefront

I’m not sure how they do it, something to do with Sarah McNally  having worked in publishing and it being the It Bookstore of NYC that is not a Barnes and Noble, but they always have the top writers reading from the top books the Internet is all aTwitter over.

This past week was no exception. I love a Colson Whitehead reading. His books sometimes give me troubles (my brain is too literal and Early-British-novel-loving – I want a good, long story without too many bells and whistles of the surreal or avant garde variety), but the last one, Sag Harbor, was lovely. It helps that we’re close in age, so his reference points are (mostly) my reference points.

But the main draw of a Colson Whitehead reading is . . . Colson Whitehead. Both times I’ve heard him read, he’s prepared a short funny essay or opener or what-have-you to read, about his early beginnings as a writer and what drew him to the field. I know, this sounds really dry and too “worked” but Colson is funny. Droll. Unafraid to make fun of himself or look silly. I wish I had a newer iPhone so that I could have caught on video him playing Donna Summer’s Macarthur Park on his iPad for the audience. The song is just so strange and nonsensical and made more so by Colson singing along in falsetto. I can’t picture Joshua Ferris or Jonathan Franzen doing the same.

Here’s Colson listening intently to his iPad:

"Someone left the cake out in the rain..."

His latest book, Zone One, is about zombies. Yes, I said “zombies.” In New York City.

I know, you’re thinking, Really? Zombies? Again.But think about it. Zombies. In Manhattan. New York freakin’ City. That actually makes sense (way more than Austen’s England). I feel like a zombie about 90% of the time here, forced to roam Manhattan aimlessly, trying all day to find the thing that I would have found at my local Southern California Target in 5 minutes. And I have the strongest cravings to kill (though not always to eat) my fellow New Yorkers, neighbors and strangers alike. Plus the city makes the best backdrop for a horror story that I know of. Everybody’s already at Def Con One just trying to get groceries.

I haven’t started reading it yet, but lots of reviewers have talked a lot about how Colson’s taken the genre literary. As a big horror and sci-fi fan, he took offense to that idea and downplayed any talk that he was riding the “zombie” trend. He just was compelled to write a book about zombies. I love that his main form of research was his biannual screening of Dawn of the Dead.

I’ll have to let you know once I dive into the book. I’m still trying to finish A.S. Byatt’s mammoth The Children’s Book, which is ah-may-zing. I don’t know how that woman’s head isn’t 1000% larger than the average person or hasn’t exploded from all the research she’s had to absorb and make her own. I still couldn’t say what the book’s “about,” other than this large English family and their extended circle of family and friends at the cusp of the “old” world of Victorian England and the “new” potentially explosive turn of the century. It’s gone places I would not have imagined, and the last 300 pages (keep in mind I’m reading this on my Nook and have no idea about physical pages) have been positively gripping.

And next month at McJ? The Four Way Books Annual Reading. I cannot wait for that.

Keep on reading, my friends.

Jho

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