Monday, May 05, 2008

Chronicle: Jonathan Lethem & DJ Spooky, or, I Love My Job

So just disregard all of the "poor me" stuff stated or implied in Friday's post -- I have the coolest job in the world.

I was a tad stressed out last week (my coworkers can testify to my unstable state), and miffed that I had to go into work Friday, my day off, to set up an offsite in the morning and host an in-store event in the evening. Thanks to an afternoon pedicure date with a girlfriend, I was feeling a bit calmer in the evening, and my trusty fellow booksellers helped me do the requisite setup: clear out the regular cafe customers, hang up the ponderous movie screen, set up the temperamental projector/computer/audio hookup, put out rows and rows of chairs. We were ready in good time, and the first of the evening's guests appeared: Jonathan Lethem. (Note: I was floored by Fortress of Solitude, and I've read everything the man has ever written on Brooklyn, as well as some of his earlier sci-fi stuff, which I also love. He's a hero, an icon.)

"Hey, how are your Brooklyn bookstore plans going?" he asked, almost first thing. (I'd mentioned my dream in a shameless moment when Lethem was in the store for a reading by his friend David Shields.)

I stammered about being at the part where I need to go to banks and get some big loans, but that the neighborhood was really supportive.

"Yeah, they're dying for a bookstore," he said.

Thrill One: Famous/admired author remembers one's plans, expresses enthusiasm. Almost as good as the encouragements of David Mitchell.

The other author, Paul Miller, was a bit late in coming, so I later got to chat some more with Jonathan while the crowd slowly filled and overflowed the chairs we'd set up. I asked him about his new novel in progress, to be published probably late next year, which I'd read an excerpt from in Zadie Smith's Other People anthology (it's the story/character "Perkus Tooth"). He said it was getting close to finished -- "I know everything," he said, "I just have to get it written." He told me that along with Perkus and the story's narrator, there are a handful of other characters, and the story mostly plays out on New York's Upper East Side. When I asked if there was any magic in the story (like the ring in Fortress, or his earlier literary genre-bending), he allowed as how there was more of a sense of ominous foreboding.

"It's something like a Saul Bellow novel that's gradually taken over by H.P. Lovecraft," he offered.

Thrill Two: Inside scoop on forthcoming literary work from admired author, complete with memorably clever descriptive phrase.

At last, Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky arrived, and greeted me gracefully amongst all the posse/admirers clamoring for his attention. I asked what we were doing for audio/visual, as I had had only the vaguest instructions; he humbly admitted that it had been "one of those days" (it later turned out he'd just gotten off a plane from Antarctica), and he didn't have anything prepared. But he handed me his (own personal) iPod and pointed out the right playlist, and suggested I pull up both author's websites for the big screen.

Thrill Three: Custody of famous DJ/artist's iPod.

Duly prepared, with strains of remixed Allen Ginsberg in the background and the Jonathan Lethem and DJ Spooky websites up on the screen (both appropriately dynamic changing backgrounds), I did my standard intro, for a crowd of over 100.

Thrill Four: Realizing that you've successfully planned and are now hosting a very popular event, on a Friday night, in Manhattan, New York City.

Lethem first read from his new novel in paperback, You Don't Love Me Yet (with comics characters and hamburgers flashing over him from his own website). The passage, about a band's goofy but electrifying set at a loft party, had the feel of a good really good party getting started, and the added bonus of Lethem shouting lyrics like:

I'm the houseGUEST
I can't get no REST
In your guest BED
I'll sleep when I'm DEAD

Then he talked: about the creative and performative aspects of music vs. literature, about borrowing and referencing and theft, about his own interest in these issues and his contact with DJ Spooky, before he turned it over to Paul.

Paul read from his introduction to the anthology he edited, Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture: a trippy meditation on satellites, shared experience, tributes and sampling. Then he talked: about the contributors to the anthology from Brian Eno to Lethem to Chuck D to Cory Doctorow, and some of the ideas he'd been developing about creative commons, cultural exchange, copyright and "scene-ius" (Eno's term for collective creativity).

And then he passed the mike back to Lethem. It was like a collaborative, intellectual MC showdown: each kept taking the conversation higher and higher, riffing on each other's themes, pulling out new sweet phrases and big ideas, and referencing everybody. I wish I'd kept a tally of the name-dropping -- or rather, effective allusions and informative tributes -- these two dropped. Just for a sampling: Ginsberg, James Brown, Gertrude Stein, Wu Tang Clan,
Slavoj Zizek... Lethem talked about his Promiscuous Materials Project. Miller passed out free CDs.

It was possibly the most high-level, high-energy conversation I've ever heard in the bookstore, and when it was over, the applause was thunderous. And then people bought books. EVERYONE bought books.
I bought books myself, which happens a small percentage of the time when you're doing events six nights a week.

Thrill Five: The event worked. Actually, it rocked. And you made it to the end.

As the line of fans getting books signed dwindled and we got the last of the equipment put away, I sidled up to the authors with my own books for signature. Both wrote variations of "To Jessica -- thanks for a great night!"

Thrill Six: Personalized signatures from authors you admire... even if they could possibly be misconstrued by later readers.

I lamented light-heartedly that I didn't get my hands on one of the free CDs, and Paul asked for my card and said he'd come back to the store to give me one and sign more books for stock. Then Jonathan reached in his bag and pulled out one of those skinny jewel cases that you buy in bulk, with the title "Monster Eyes" (the name of the hit song of the band in his novel). "Here -- music to read by," he said.

Thrill Five: A secret mix CD made by Jonathan Lethem. Sweet!

Okay, I am a total nerd. Authors are my rock stars. The question is, how did I get so lucky that they pay me for this? And is it okay if I keep on doing this -- reading, meeting authors, working in bookstores -- for the rest of my life?