Last Friday night, I was fortunate enough to get to see Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland chatting together at the New York Public Library. I’d heard that a Palahniuk event is rarely uneventful and I was pretty curious about the way things might play out. Having attended hundreds of author events over the years, I can safely say that this one stood out for its difference and its energy and it’s got me wondering about the whole format of such things.
I’d had my ticket for a good while and it had offered me a point of focus for my holiday in Brooklyn.
The afternoon was spent down on the boardwalk along Brighton Beach and Coney Island. It had been a long time since I’d been there – not far short of 20 years – and things have changed. It’s like everything’s been polished and dusted and the old and brittle has been replaced by the new and shiny. It still gave me an almighty buzz to be there, wandering past the handball games and the chess tables, then under the French Connection railway lines above Brighton Beach Avenue for a tour of Russia. It was made all the more vibrant for me because I was in the middle of reading the amazing book, recommended by my good friend Rory Costello, Gravesend, set not too very far from where I was and frequently featured in the novel. I’ll be explaining why Gravesend is a book that shouldn’t be missed when time allows.
I took the Q train up to Central Park and wandered through the sea of human traffic, mainly against the tide. At 42nd Street, I took a left and enjoyed a break from the masses. There was Bryant Park, where I’d left it in the rain all those years before, just after the big screen had told King Kong’s story. Right next to it, my destination, the New York Library’s main building. It has a beautiful facade, all that white stone and Greek pillars. It also has a beautiful inside.
I took my seat in a wonderful auditorium, under an enormous dome and its modern soft-lighting. A man came on to explain what we were to do with the beach balls, sharpies and glow-sticks that were at every seat and I waited. The idea was that if anyone had a question, it should be written on one of the balls.
Just before the main feature, the director of the live events explained that the idea behind the author appearances is that they should make a ‘heavy institution dance’ and that the line-up for my evening was likely to make it levitate. He was partly right.
The event parted company with the traditional right from the off.
All of the balls, with questions or not, were to be thrown into the centre of the audience by those on the outside and to the outside by those at the centre. With the lights off, several hundred balls with their pink and yellow luminosity and their weighty words filled the air and bounced off each other as if involved in some mighty science demonstration. When they settled, we did it again.
The next things to fly in the air were bags of sweets, health and safety be damned. Chuck and Doug threw them out with different degrees of skill. I’d say Chuck, swinging easily inside his body had maybe been practising whereas Doug C may not have.
The drawback to the sweets was that the first question was screened out by the sound of hundreds of wrappers being opened, but I don’t think we missed much and the chocolate tasted good.
After a series of questions, the ball thing happened again. At random, people with balls (not meaning courage or testicles) read out the questions in their possessions. The good thing about this method was that the questioner wasn’t hogging a microphone and showing off as much of their knowledge as possible within their moment of fame.
There also happened to be a reward for the people who asked a question. It was a rubber arm that looked like it had been severed from a body just below the elbow. And it was signed by Chuck. They were thrown expertly and a surprising number of them were caught, always to a sincere round of applause.
There was another twist in the event that I hadn’t come across before. There was a reading of Doug’s new book, something I’d been looking forward to. When the time came, I was surprised that the author didn’t move – he didn’t stand, pick up a book or open his mouth. Instead, the reading was played into the room and voiced by an English actor. Doug sat there smiling and it created the impression that we were reading his mind somehow, that he was projecting his thoughts to us while twitching his eyebrows and tapping the pads of his fingers together. I’d not seen this happen before and look forward to the next time.
To round off a happy evening of interesting ideas and insights, the signed arms that were left in the boxes were thrown into the crowd.
I was taken aback as I’d spend that last quarter-hour of the event planning my theft of one of them so that I had almost every eventuality (bar arrest) covered.
One of the arms came close. I stood up a little too enthusiastically and missed the thing. Something about the act of determination embarrassed me and I sat down again and stayed that way. When one went straight for the woman in front of me and slightly to my right, I was disappointed that Chuck’s throw hadn’t been just a single degree different. Thankfully, the lady was rubbish at catching and batted it straight into my lap. I grabbed it round the wrist, as if it might be ready to escape, and held firm. The thought that I should give it to the lady who couldn’t catch filled me and I suppressed it with all the energy I could muster. I had a touch of guilt; I also had a new arm.
So it was that I found myself under the beautiful ceiling of Grand Central Station carrying a bloody limb. It was a glorious moment and I stood and enjoyed it for a few minutes before disappearing underground to take the 4.
As events go, this was completely different. I felt like I’d had all the discussion and shared wisdom that I could have hoped for and a taste for a new approach to author appearances that I would like to experience again.
Of course, this won’t be the first or the most energetic literary appearance ever, but it sure was different. I’d like to know what I’ve been missing. Let me know what you’ve seen so that I can work out my routine for when the NYPL send me my invitation to appear. I’m thinking water pistols, short-story-writing-through-participation and clothes swapping. Ideas on a postcard or in the comments.