Last night I went to a fiction reading with my friend, Jess, her boyfriend, Bobby, and her roommate, Leah: all people that I'm very comfortable with. It was the release party for a student anthology in which Jess had a story published and she read a little bit of that story, as did 9 other authors from the book.
I've been to several of these functions that are hosted by Jess's grad school before. There's a mix of faculty and students and very few outsiders. Someone almost always speaks to me since no one recognizes me as being part of the department. It's kind of neat. Like church should be, right? The students are a mix of mature people, who all look like themselves, and undergrad and MFA grad students in their early twenties, who like each other. Almost every one of this younger set make themselves ugly in some way, as if they're looking for a lowest common denominator so that the fractions that are their identities can be added together to make whole numbers. Scary-looking piercings. Terrible hair cuts with unevenly cuts bangs, odd pointy bits and an obvious lack of washing. Outfits in which not one article of clothing is similar in style, color, formality or pattern with any other aspect of the outfit. I take that back, one girl wore a sequined red tam that matched her sequined red tube top. Let's pause for a moment to consider that one. They do all of this with a completely straight face.
The fiction is, for the most part, very good. I wouldn't keep attending these functions if it weren't, no matter how much I love Jess. It's not a high-prestige school but they seem to be doing something right. During two of the readings, I was struck with the experience enough to write them moments down as vignettes in my journal. I'd like to share them with you here.
Donnel is reading his story full of slave dialogue that comes straight out of Roots. He is a Fiction I student so this can, in part, be forgiven. He is nervous and standing at the podium in a stance that looks for all the world like he is going to screw it doggy-style. Or, at least, like men in hip-hop videos stand when they are posturing themselves to look like they are about to screw the scantily-dressed young women who are bent forward in half in front of them. However, he is not dressed in any sort of hip-hop style. He wears generic jeans that are so square they are almost royal blue and a long-sleeved red jersey shirt. But his left arm is flexed out straight and crossed over half of his torso to hold open the book that rests on the podium at exactly the same height that the finely-rounded buttocks would be. His legs were spread wide, extending outside of the podium by a good 6-8 inches on either side, creating an almost equilateral triangle with the floor. They are also flexed straight and both of his feet are pointed forward, as if to give his pelvis the most possible leverage to bump back and forth onto the text.
Later, Donnel stood against the wall listening to the other readers in his group and his stance belied past military service. I also noticed that although his facial expression showed utter but silent disbelief that he was going to be the first in his group to read, once he reached the podium and assumed his particular posture, he did not stammer an excuse about being nervous but simply began reading his piece with as much poise as he had at any time during the presentation. All in all, an interesting combination of traits and therefore, thoroughly entertaining.
The second vignette involves a tubby nerd named Chris whom I have heard read at several events. Because of time constraints, he always reads just a few pages from larger pieces. I'm not really impressed by the stories he tells or they way he writes, although they demonstrate competence. However, he is very good at choosing the scene of a story that culminates in a Star Wars reference. As part of a larger piece, these would simply be allusions, but because he pauses with finality, nods his head and says, "Thank you," after them, they sound like the punchlines of jokes and he gets good responses from his audience. The first time I heard him read, he wore a red button-down shirt tucked into black jeans and an Episode 1 novelty tie. The red shirt accented Darth Maul's face well. Last night, it was some sort of old-school death metal t-shirt. Maybe Metallica.
So, the scene that he read last night involved a 12-year-old boy attending a Def Leppard concert in 1986 with his Uncle Eddie at Alpine Valley, which is a gigantic outdoor amphitheater within driving distance of Chicagoland. As the boy and his uncle stood at the top of the hill that looked down first at the expanse of lawn seats, past the pavilion seating and to the stage, the uncle says with pomp and gravity, "Alpine Valley." The boy narrates, "The tone of my uncle's voice reminded me of another voice and I thought to myself, You will never . . . "
At this point, I was startled into laughter. I had been misdirected into thinking that this would be a post-modern ironic commentary on the pop sub-culture of heavy metal in the 80s. But Chris was faithful and brought it back around to Star Wars. I recognized the quote he was about to recite after only three words and my laughter was like a strand of brightly-colored mohair yarn, with an intense core of color and crackling tendrils of fuzz around that core, snaking its way between the heads and shoulders of the two rows in front of me like a message to the podium. A lone voice communicating, "You are not alone. I'm out here, too." The quote continued and I was still the only one laughing. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. At this point a few more Kevin Smith wannabes had caught on to the origin of the quote and joined my laughter, wanting to show the room that they, too, understood Gen-X pop culture references. My friends, of course, had begun laughing at ME, recognizing my early participation in the nerd joke.
Seriously, I have a vivid memory of playing and rewinding Star Wars repeatedly when I was 13 or so in order to write down that quote because I loved it so much. I loved it because the language was fantastic but I also loved it because as Obi Wan Kenobi is standing on a cliff looking down at Mos Eisley with the young Luke Skywalker at his side, he follows up the description with one of the most "duh" statements one could utter at that moment. We must be cautious. A hive of scum and villainy? Of course we must be cautious! It sounded like a punchline to my 13-year-old self, who was only just becoming aware of how to analyze comedic timing.
I love that Jess is a fiction grad student because I get these experiences in which I can use my English Literature degree, as well as experience fun little moments like these.
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