Mary Gaitskill, Tao Lin, and others engage in a night of queer and experimental fiction in support of Radar Lab writer's retreat
In the Strand’s rare-book room, located on the bookstore’s third floor, there is a $45,000 copy of Ulysses, complete with illustrations by Matisse, and signed by both the artist and the author. It’s the most expensive book in the room, and on Saturday night, Michelle Tea kicked off the first New York City benefit for RADAR Lab, a free, “queer-centric” retreat for writers and artists which has been held for the past three summers in Akumal, Mexico, by asking the forty or so audience members in attendance not to steal it.
It was a serious request, but the statement wasn't one to be taken seriously; the intimate gathering, hosted by the energetic author and poet (pictured below; photo by Amos Mac), who founded San Francisco-based RADAR Productions in 2003, was casual and friendly—more a collection of friends chatting over Girl Scout cookies, hummus, and wine in an extraordinarily well-appointed library than a formal reading.
The RADAR Lab is run by RADAR Productions—which also organizes literary “happenings,” mostly in the Bay Area—and the reading at the Strand was intended to raise money for the fourth annual retreat, whose participants have already been chosen. (Tao Lin, writer, publisher and internet sensation, on hand to read, was one of the judges of this year’s applications.) There were a few hiccups at the start—a family emergency which prevented Michael Cunningham from attending; technical difficulties which prevented the screening of a clip of Sini Anderson’s upcoming documentary The Punk Singer, about feminist rocker Kathleen Hanna—which Tea cheerfully blamed on Mars and Mercury in retrograde. But this hardly dampened the jovial mood—instead, it heightened the pleasantly haphazard spirit, the sense that nothing more than Tea’s infectious and seemingly inexhaustible energy was powering the event, perhaps even the room’s electricity.
The first two readers—Lorelei Lee (a porn actress and writer who collaborated with Stephen Elliott, also featured, on the screenplay for the upcoming film Cherry, which stars James Franco) and the writer Leopoldine Core—both shared pieces that they had workshopped during their own time at the Lab. Lee’s centered on an actress who worked in porn, and was filled with precise descriptions of how people look and feel and smell “up close”; Core sharply sketched a scene between two women, one of whom has a crush on the other.
Rose Troche, a screenwriter and director, took the stage third to talk about the writing process behind her latest project, an autobiographical film called The Show. She was rambling and personal—a sassy, middle-aged aunt eager to dispense advice and swap slightly off-color stories at Thanksgiving: admiring the book-lined environs she declared a desire to “make love in this room right now”; she touched on childhood trauma—her parents’ divorce was so brutal that the lawyer they went to never performed another; after her mother’s suicide attempt, she was comforted by a paramedic who mistakenly called her “son”; describing her own emotional neediness she declared that she was prone, as an adolescent, to falling in love with anyone who would show her any compassion: “I would hand job you to the end of the world,” she chuckled, thinking back on her younger self.
It was a smooth segue to filmmaker Siri Anderson's conversation with Michelle Tea, which took place in lieu of the previously planned screening. The two women discussed their spoken word collective, Sister Spit—Tea was still bitter about the folk singers who had performed at their open mic nights, covering Beatles and Ani DiFranco songs (“Poets aren’t doing Sylvia Plath covers!” she complained), while Anderson gleefully recounted the night that a performer had played a tampon string (attached, yes, to an inserted tampon) with a bow—before Anderson explained her interest in making a documentary about the musician Kathleen Hanna. Hanna, she said, was the kind of person who would talk to you in private, and was certainly polite to the press, but who was nevertheless always pushing her friends in front of her, asking them to speak for her. Anderson wanted Hanna to speak for herself, and Hanna finally agreed:
“I’m really trying hard to listen to what her story is,” Anderson explained. The filming process—a year long—seemed to have been a joyful one; at the very least, it provided ample fodder for anecdotes. Tea remembered being with Anderson during the shoot, and flirting with Joan Jett at a bar—Jett wanted to get her high, but the pot was from her manager, and she decided that it was “bad male energy pot.” They had also met teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, who, Anderson assured the crowd, was an “amazing person”; “Why is no one else singing about rape?” Anderson remembered Gevinson complaining about contemporary female musicians as compared to Hanna.
Anderson hadn’t realized, she said, that the film had “no men” in it until she screened it. And while some who saw the film thought this might prove to be a stumbling block, Anderson didn’t.
“I just want to say I don't think that's a problem,” she said. It was, in some ways, a comment on the evening itself, which, though it did feature two male readers, was weighted heavily toward the female perspective as well as toward queer and marginalized perspectives—without being overtly political. Not precisely the equivalent of a ’70s consciousness-raising, but a startling reminder of the kind of stories that don’t frequently get mainstream attention.
Perhaps this atmosphere—congenial, anecdotal, and yes, overwhelmingly female—was what made Tao Lin’s reading so startling. He listed the top ten worst fruits to get a blow job from, from blueberry (least worst) through passionfruit (number eight; the orgasm produced is “distinguishable from precum only by a CAT scan”) and pineapples (number four; Lin noted that they seem to have evolved “specifically to avoid giving a blow job”), and finally to the coconut, whose method of oral sex—repeatedly bashing the genital area—was so often fatal that suicide by coconut blow job had its own moniker, Lin claimed: “the coconut decision.”
While the audience seemed to be enjoying the blunt performance, Lin’s affectless delivery combined with his subject matter created an odd effect. Was he mocking the male obsession with oral sex? Quite possibly. Was his list funny? Occasionally. Did it also seem designed to make people uncomfortable? Certainly—though it was unclear to what further end.
Mary Gaitskill, the National Book Award–nominated author of deliberately button-pushing fiction, read last. Dressed in various shades of gray, her hair was the snowy-white of her author photograph, though her face seemed somehow softer than in pictures—sharp, yes, and capable of extremely intense gazes, but also of a slow, wicked smile that made her seem sweet and vulnerable and devious all at once. She read an excerpt from an unpublished novel that she was shaping into a stand-alone short story entitled “The Devil's Treasure.” It recounted a young girl’s journey into hell, and featured lines of startling beauty and terror—the latter certainly brought out by Gaitskill’s stern physical presence—as when the narrator encounters a denizen of hell who tells her: “I carry love wrapped in pain. That's my treasure. And soon it will be yours."
Tea, who took the stage to close out the event, exclaimed, “Writers are witches . . . I feel like I just came out of a spell." Gaitskill’s soft voice certainly had something of the incantatory to it. Later, drinking red wine and lingering by the crackers and cheese, Gaitskill was cautiously approached by her admirers—two men, and then two women—who thanked her with a great deal of sincerity. Gaitskill, who was born in Kentucky and has not entirely lost her Southern inflection, was unfailingly polite.
Earlier, waiting for the readings to start, a group in the audience had been chatting about the miracle of New York deli delivery, and the lack of a similar service in California. The Bay Area may not have bodegas willing to bring your morning coffee and cigarettes to your door, but the easy camaraderie, the sense of community effortlessly on display, the infectious enthusiasm which permeated the evening—New York could certainly use more of that.