12:27 pm Oct. 8, 2012
No matter how much praise or venom Michiko Kakutani might heap on to you, no matter how many times you’ve contributed to The New York Review of Books, and no matter how many times the Coen Brothers try or fail to turn one of your books into a film, you’ve reached a certain high point in your career when there are several people standing on the corner of Lexington Ave. and 92nd St. looking to buy scalped tickets to hear you read at The 92nd St. Y.
That was the case on the evening of Oct. 4 outside of the Upper East Side institution as it hosted Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon for a celebration of the authors’ new books. The night also opened up the fall/winter 2012-13 season for the Poetry Center’s esteemed reading series. Tickets started out at $24, but one unlucky ticketless fan said she was willing to pay double that to get in. This was a bit curious since Smith has already done a few New York City readings (“an inordinate amount,” as she said just last week), and Chabon, although he lives in California, makes it to New York from time to time. It isn’t exactly like you’re being offered a night featuring Thomas Pynchon showing slideshows of his summer vacation with Bigfoot alongside the ghost of J.D. Salinger.
“They haven’t come here,” a short woman—who looked like she may or may not be the mother of Ira Glass (seriously, she looked just like him)—interrupted me when I inquired why the other woman was willing to pay so much to see the duo. Of course by “here,” she was referring to the little corner of New York from which the locals don’t stray far. You don’t make the schlep downtown to McNally Jackson to see an author read, the short woman seemed to suggest; they come to the Upper East Side to see you. That’s just the culture of New York when you get close to Central Park. Maybe you walk to the West Side to go to Barney Greengrass, or take a cab ride to MoMA, but that’s about it. (Of course, both Smith and Chabon had appeared at 92Y, just not together.)
As I waited around outside, two other older ladies, each with small, rectangular pieces of cardboard proclaiming that they, too, were looking for tickets, got into a bickering argument when a gentleman in an overcoat decided to give one of the women his spare ticket; the other woman exhibited the injured manner of one whose cab has been stolen.
“Can you believe that?” the ticketless woman said repeatedly, to anyone who would listen, shaking her head in disgust.
Inside, two older men carried on a conversation about stocks while sitting underneath the wooden structure 92Y had set up for the holiday of Sukkot. When a security guard walked over to tell them they couldn’t sit there, one of gentleman threw his hands up and asked, “We can’t sit under the sukkah?” The security guard, unable to protest, walked away, leaving the two men to continue talking about money in the tiny hut.
As people started making their way into the auditorium, one woman walked confidently to the front of the line and gave her ticket to the usher to the protests of all the people she cut off.
“I have special needs,” she claimed, as people began to hiss and shout at her.
“Authors are like rock stars for old people,” a younger patron said. He was talking to a young woman wearing a nearly identical pair of Warby Parkers. “I don’t get it.”
The hoopla behind the two writers at the 92Y together is even more interesting when you take into consideration the fact that the event wasn’t listed as anything other than “Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith.” No “In Conversation” or any other enticing tidbits to lead ticket buyers to think that the event was anything more than the two authors giving a live reading.
And that’s basically what it was. Smith introduced Chabon, who read from his latest, Telegraph Avenue, and then turned the microphone back to Smith to read from her latest, NW. That’s what people waited outside of the 92Y, on a muggy October evening, and, in some cases, paid $50 for.
Smith strode out past a single black metal chair that sat to the right of the speaking podium (the chair sat empty throughout the night, maybe as some sort of tribute to Clint Eastwood?) in what has become her trademark look: high boots and jeans, hair in a wrap, large black glasses. It has become more and more clear that in terms of style, Smith is running laps around most of her contemporaries; she looks cool, confident and stunning while many writers look like they can’t be bothered to tie a tie or comb their hair. Smith works her personal style in a way that would make Andy Warhol proud; you know when Zadie Smith is in the room.
Just like her look, her introduction for Chabon was pure Smith, and pure class, touching on all the different characters Chabon writes about (“it’s pretty crowded in there” she said in reference to all the different types of people Chabon finds interesting), she called him “a natural,” and said Chabon's affinity for characters from Yiddish policemen to comic-book nerds is thanks to the fact that “He’s a fan by nature.”
“I’m verklept,” said Chabon when he got to the mike, obviously moved by the warm intro and very much playing to the crowd.
He then read from Telegraph Avenue for at least a half hour. He isn’t as captivating a speaker as Smith, but the humorous bits scattered throughout kept the audience’s attention (though for my part it was overlong, and the material not entirely sparkling). As if egged on by Smith’s sartorial snappiness, Chabon had spiffed himself up too, in paisley. If 2011 was the year of the Jeffrey Eugenides vests, I feel it’s high time 2012 be branded as the year of the Chabon paisley shirt.
When he finished up reading (wisely at a spot where the last words were “Telegraph Avenue,” so people didn’t forget the name of the book after the mini-marathon), Chabon professed a lack of preparedness. He reminisced about showing up to a panel with Cynthia Ozick, one where he was told notes weren't needed, only to find Ozick with a sheaf of detailed notes. But what Chabon lacked in terms of a proper introduction, he made up in with a bit of off-the-cuff sweetness by telling people that his happy spots include “the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, North Carolina barbecue pulled pork,” his Jewish son dressed up in a kilt for his Halloween costume, and “a new Zadie Smith novel.”
Maybe for the mercy of the crowd, Smith broke her reading up into two sections, but her multiple accents, inflections, and voicings—Rastafarians, black Londoners, South Asians—were so entertaining as to be addictive. She’s mastered something very unique to her own writing, heavy as it is on a panoply of voices, that makes one want to read (or reread) the text with her voicings in mind.
But as mentioned, this was simply a reading, plain and simple. So as soon as Smith finished up, people started heading for the exits. Nearly two hours of reading from two of today’s top fiction writers: well worth the price of admission, or even double.
More by this author:
- At a Park Slope Synagogue, Auster, DeLillo, Foer, and a brief cultural respite
- The first theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Franzen plays on a dire sense of uncertainty