When Reality Fails

Earlier this week, I wrote some notes on the Chang-Rae Lee and Lorrie Moore reading at the New Yorker Festival for Ms. Maud, here. As I mentioned before, I also got tickets for the “When Reality Fails” panel last Saturday morning. Apologies in advance for the inaccuracy of any quotes, hastily scrawled on index cards.

Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, dreamed of a better world, a world of answers; when she awoke, the answers didn’t exist yet, but she had dreamed into being, there on stage with her in the New York Public Library, writers capable of asking the right questions. “That’s incredible,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated with how people cope with the incredible,” said Stephen King. The corpse of Henry James walked on stage from behind a curtain in back. “Nothing odd works long,” he scoffed, but he wasn’t miked, so no one heard him. He sighed, wandered over stage right, to where George Saunders and Judy Budnitz were sitting, lingered behind them. Budnitz looked slightly uncomfortable. Saunders looked like he was used to the company of the unwanted dead. James said, “Write a dream, lose a reader.” Saunders leaned back and whispered, “I’m sorry, who invited you?” A.M. Homes said that Los Angeles didn’t exist, and we all realized she was right. Saunders fell asleep on stage, dreamed of an ex-girlfriend coming to him and saying “I just want you to know, I’m fine.” Bill Buford, Treisman’s old boss, shouted from the audience, “Use that in a story!” Henry James tried to make a tut-tutting noise, but it made all the teeth fall out of his head. Budnitz got distracted trying to help James clean up the mess. Treisman and Martin Amis agreed upon a particular set of fictional rules they would call “Realism,” but then they decided to start a band with that name instead. They pleaded with Homes to play bass. She agreed. The words “material world as first order of reality” formed on an index card in front of me, although I did not write them. That’s peculiar, I thought. King said: “What interests me is the intrusion of the peculiar.” Budnitz succeeded in planting all of James’s teeth back in his skull. Two stagehands got him a mike and a director’s chair. James said, “Y’all are a bunch of crazy-ass motherfuckers.” Then he forgot himself, tried to blow a raspberry, making his teeth pop right back out of their sockets. Budnitz gave up helping James, fell asleep, dreamed of a future plagued with natural disasters, competing fundamentalisms. Homes said the worst impossibles aren’t our future, they’re already our now. “Once you start satirizing Islam, it’s very difficult to stop,” said Amis. “The politically oriented must seek the universal,” whispered a voice inside my mind. Michael Chabon walked on stage, apologized for being hungover; he conjured up the ghost of Angela Carter, who revealed to him that she was his birth mother. Homes and Chabon thus realized they were siblings. They hugged, wept uncontrollably, moved to Iowa, co-wrote science fiction. Saunders woke up, transformed the hall we sat in into the most holy inner sanctum of the churches and synagogues and mosques of our childhoods, made us all better people. “The best stories are the ones that cause some kind of moral inflection,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how they do it.” Amis said there are two things fiction can’t do, and that’s dreams and sex. John Updike came up on stage, began making strenuous love to Carter’s ghost to prove Amis wrong. Treisman called the debate a draw. Budnitz awoke, discovered she was actually Gregor Samsa; Saunders pointed out that she wasn’t thinking to herself “Oh shit I’m a beetle,” but rather “Oh shit I’m going to be late for the bus.” Martin Amis turned into Saul Bellow. Saul Bellow turned into Baron Frankenstein. Baron Frankenstein turned into a 19th-century farmer and his dog, neither of whom were aware of the aging of the planet. James pulled the manuscript to Carrie out of the trash. It’s dreadful, King protested. No one’s going to want to read it. No, said James, it’s good, I think you should send it out. The 19th-century farmer and his dog turned into P.T. Barnum. “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” he said. Barnum turned into Vladimir Nabokov. His ideal reader, he said, was himself, but older. Nabokov turned back into Amis, said his was himself, but younger. A.M. Homes said her ideal reader was a younger Nabokov and an older Amis. An angry 20-year-old Los Angelean, cursed with acne and unrequited love, unaware of all of our existence, wandered into the Rose reading room upstairs, discovered literature.