A New York Reading Guide

I’m in New York, where I watched a David Byrne show at St James Theater. Due to a certain pandemic this was not the show that I had paid for, but I’m not complaining. My friend, the BFF from Union Square, and I were seated Orchestra near the podium, i.e. outrageously expensive. I’m still not complaining. The show was very good. I had never seen David Byrne in real life. His legendary Talking Heads are from well before my time (in terms of age of reason). David Byrne has been around for a long time, and a sizeable part of the audience consisted of such as have been around for similar periods of time. A number of them, notably a tightly knit group of oldtimers occupying a row of seats directly in front of us, clapped their hands like monkeys in a Bimbo Box each time the beat of a song was basic enough to allow mechanical execution, like they were on quantities of acetaminophen, or attending a Vienna New Year’s concert. The difference with an automaton being that these people also clapped their hands for no reason at all, such as when Byrne had only announced a song but not yet even performed it (I’m very strict in these things), or when he said something trite but endearing that anyone of us could have come up with. But Byrne was incredibly sexy, and I fantasized quietly and intensely over him, much in keeping with his age, with satisfactory outcome, after I had gotten back to my hotel. Towards the end of the show, encouraged by Byrne, we got up and danced within the narrow confines of the space allowed by the allocated seats. This forced me to move my body in a way I felt made me the envy of the old French couple seated in the row directly behind us. (As we moved out of the theater, we were behind the couple as it laboriously worked its way up in the direction of the exit signs. People starting to mildly push the people in front of them to get traction, I cussed, after Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Mort à Crédit), Nom de Dieu de sacré saloperie de Nom de Dieu de merde! Tonnerre! This was meant to impress the couple. But they didn’t hear me. Or they may have had no sense of highlights in French literature, in which case they would have just been extremely embarrassed by my rudeness).

During the performance Byrne mentioned that he lives downtown Manhattan, but less downtown than he used to. My hotel is fairly downtown (on 40 something street and Madison; I’m not giving everything away), and so the next day I ventured out uptown to increase the chance that I would run into Byrne. I walked along Fifth Avenue, a couple of times veering off into a block, all the way up to Central Park, where I booked a horse carriage ride. Having comfortably settled in the cushions and provided instructions to the coachwoman, who promptly declined the same for being outrageously out of scope, I pulled a book from my purse that I had bought at Barnes & Noble (together with seven other books) and started to read. Byrne, whom I had in fact run into as I walked to Central Park, had slunk into the carriage’s seat across from me. He asked me why do you pay for a horse carriage and then read a book. I explained that reading books – fiction of course; non-fiction, if sadly produced in great quantity and the subject of unwarranted review, is not worth reading – is the only thing that matters in a woman’s life, and that everything else that I do – earning heaps of money, buying expensive clothes, using two laptops at the same time (one for the company I’m in the board of directors of and one for the company that I own myself), thumbing away on an iPhone (IOS) and a Samsung phone (Android) alike, demonstratively ignoring or staring down my fellow human beings, etc. (the etc. including taking a horse carriage ride and read a book) – I only do to impress other people. The amount of detail of my explanations was less than suggested here. I think novels are your poison, Byrne said. Yeah, he added musingly, I did drugs (something he had also volunteered during the show). I can relate to that. Btw, I said (still not meaning to complain), you owe me 50% of the fare for the ride.

On the way back to nowhere in particular I entered St. Patrick’s. Tourists were swarming all over the place as usual. Ethereal choral music was loop-playing over the PA system, confirming my suspicion that this was a place not of worship and contemplation but of contemptible mass culture and bad taste, i.e. of the kind that led Jesus to crack his whip in a temple turned shop (John 2:15). Not looking in any particular direction and avoiding to gaze ahead towards the crossing and the altar in particular, I moved into a pew and started reading my book again. I think I did this to impress on people my loathing for their cheap, groveling and ephemeral bout of religiousness and that even in St Patrick’s to read literature is far superior to anything going on, being suggested and being imagined in that knock-off neo-gothic building. After some 15 minutes I started to feel I had made my point. I got up and wriggled out of the pew. I walked out of the church building still refusing to cast any glances around to enjoy the aspects of the magnificent interior of St Patrick’s that I would have enjoyed had not so many tourists been cramped up inside and an overriding urge to separate myself from the crowd (that I so depended on for my act and my ego) not gotten in the way of the capabilities of my aesthetic mind.

The particular book I had been reading is Conversations With Friends (2017) by Sally Rooney. A long time reading I thought it’s a great novel if not great literature. About three parts of the way in, I began realizing that the author should have prepared the run-up to an ending at about the point I was at at a much earlier stage. But the narrative dragged on long after this point, even digressed to a mawkish church scene interlude, while fighting an increasingly desperate fight to retain my attention against a loss of interest and curiosity. Seemingly in an attempt to instil the novel with a “Vision”, a “Big Idea”, the novel only succeeds in becoming fuzzy, confused, blah blah blah-ish. If the finale provides any insight it is that Rooney, in writing Conversations With Friends, proves herself an accomplished light-prose writer in search of a plot, or focus, a wrap at least. I had a very similar experience reading My Year Of Rest And Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh, ten years older than Rooney but at less than a writer’s generation’s distance from her. The novel takes off brilliantly, plateaus at a high level of sparkling darkish humor, but fails to develop and disappointingly drops off to a life philosophy kind of mishmash. I see a school of writing emerging. A school in need of a stern teacher. I also read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (2019). It bugs me why this book has not remained unwritten (I’m not content with the answer that it had to be written to warrant the question). But I guess she could be that teacher.

I’m not complaining, I told Byrne, whom I had remained friendly with following the horse & carriage tour and sat sharing above reviews with over a dinner in his downtown-ish Manhattan brownstone, but, damnit, that show of yours was worth a hundred conversations with friends. Which is a fair approximation of the price I had paid for the tickets.

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