Sunday, September 18, 2016

Don DeLillo, Maltz Performing Arts Center, Cleveland, Ohio, 9/13/2016

Went to a q + a featuring author Don DeLillo last night in Cleveland. My father-in-law commented that he has quite a DeLillo collection on his bookcase by proxy (my brother-in-law, I believe) but he hasn’t managed to get further than 20 pages in any given DeLillo book. "Not easy stuff", he said. I feel the same though I only tried White Noise... I really like the idea of Postmodernism rather than actual application. It was all I could to read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 a year ago - and that’s a pretty quirky, funny book. I loved the ideas of the plot - just couldn’t stay engaged. I ended up grinding through it. Probably helped that we were prisoners on a delayed plane flight from Denver.

I do, however, appreciate the work of the children of DeLillo, like Franzen, DF Wallace, and their peers. Wallace used to write DeLillo all the time for advice about to handle fame and so on. 

So anyways, the event was held at the Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland - it’s been renovated and is now called the Maltz Performing Arts Center. Nice pic here. History here. Apparently in the mid-1960s the congregation built a branch in Beachwood, and that eventually expanded and became home base, reflecting the population shift to the inner ring of suburbs away from downtown. Stuff like this always makes me reflect on the diminishing role of religion, the closing and repurposing of religious buildings. In a city like Cleveland, immigrants’ lives were centered around family and church as a way to preserve heritage and help establish new immigrants. Every generation moves farther away from what it was, languages are forgotten, traditions left behind. I’ve seen it in my own family firsthand. My kids will have little to no reason to know how to speak conversational informal German as I did when I was young.  

Maltz Performing Arts Center is right on the edge of University Circle. It’s that kind of neighborhood caught in transition - right by the museums and schools, tons of traffic, lots of buildings that need rehabbed, and the occasional remaining once-majestic-now-slightly-less-so old house smack dab in the middle of it all. 

The audience at the event was pretty much older white. Who reads anymore, I'd wondered, prior to arriving. There was a smattering of young folks, probably Case english students. Local author Thrity Umrigar introduced DeLillo.

DeLillo’s 80, has a raspy voice and has that thing where you can’t tell if he can really see or hear well, or is it just an act? Hard to say! He’s one of those people that seemingly has all these adoring fans who want him to provide some kind of illuminating life direction, so I wouldn’t begrudge him artifice to create some distance. He seemed really with it at times, joking wryly about using a typewriter and stuff like that. He’s a New York dude, characterizing himself as “just a kid from the Bronx”. He talked a lot about things that I wasn’t sure many people could relate to - like playing stickball in the street as a kid in the Bronx, or 1950s baseball lore, or talking about important authors being Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner (thank God he threw out a token female - Flannery 'O Connor), etc. I don’t know much about him, but he’s regarded somewhat jovially on the internet as a “seer” - apparently his book topics predated inventions/events like bio terrorism and social media, among other things. People were really trying to engage him on the election and things like that, but he didn't say too much, other than making a disparaging joke about Trump, and commented that the media is indulging its baser instincts by choosing to portray Clinton in a negative light. 

The audience had maybe a dozen questions, and there was a fair amount of fawning and fanboy-ing on the part of the questioners, but there were a few good questions that garnered applause and that DeLillo himself seemed to enjoy - a guy pointed out that DeLillo’s first published novel title (Americana) started with A and his last novel title started with Z (Zero K), and that both have publication dates of May 3, so could DeLillo understand why there were so many conspiracy theories surrounding his work? DeLillo seemed tickled by the question but managed to dodge it somewhat by addressing the guy’s follow-up, which I can’t remember now. 

Another guy asked about a particular character in White Noise who wore a mailman’s cap, a down vest and had a beer belly and DeLillo acted incredulous and questioned himself as a writer, and pretended not to remember any of it, and then jokingly confessed that he had written White Noise as a single draft but had never read it, which was pretty funny. 

DeLillo was asked about the recent Lionel Shriver furor and cultural appropriation and he gave one of his more eloquent and thoughtful answers of the night where he said a fiction writer should go anywhere they please in terms of topic or character, with the knowledge that the reviews may be less than positive, depending on what’s attempted. 

There was a book sale/signing after but I opted to leave. There was some kind of odd corral going on with the book sale and the signing line but I just walked past to the exit and there was DeLillo. Could have touched him as I went by but instead I walked out into the balmy Cleveland night, listening to the night insects and the soft rush of the city as I walked to my car in the warm gloom. 


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