I will kick Norman Spinrad square in the nuts

After work on Tuesday, I headed into NYC to attend my buddy Paul Di Filippo’s reading at the South Street Seaport Museum. It was the kickoff of the 19th season of the New York Review of Science Fiction’s reading series. Paul, who came down from Providence for the event, did a great job with a charming story called “iCity”. It’s about competitive urban planning, the fickleness of public taste, and the use of ‘sensate substrate’ to build just about anything.

I got to the venue about an hour early, so as to avoid traffic from the Yankees game. I meandered around the area and took a couple of pix, but it’s nowhere near as photogenic as the swathes of Toronto we saw this weekend. Talk about urban planning: I don’t really understand the Fulton St. part of the Seaport. See, it’s a quaint, nautically-themed cobblestone street . . . populated by Gap, Talbot’s and Abercrombie & Fitch stores. This stretch is riddled with tourists, which leaves me to figure out exactly why visitors who make the relatively inconvenient jaunt to this part of Manhattan would want to shop at the same stores they have in their own towns: “I can’t believe we’ve come to the famous South Street Seaport all the way from Nebraska! Now let’s get some Pizzeria Uno!”

I guess stores that sell anchors and sailor hats would hardly stay in business, but still. Here’s a picture from out on the pier:

Sailing into the financial district

Anyway, as mentioned, Paul’s story was a hoot. Amy — who took the subway over after work — concluded she needs to start reading some of Paul’s collections. We have a bunch of them on the shelves downstairs, along with a novel or two of his, so she’ll have plenty of choices.

During the intermission, we caught up with Paul and his partner Deb Newton, along with SF legend Barry Malzberg and his wife Joyce. We told Paul & Deb that we’ll definitely get up to Providence to see them sometime soon, especially now that we know Tim Horton’s has opened some locations up there.

Then the intermission ended, and our nightmare began.

The second reader for the evening was Norman Spinrad. I’d read Little Heroes, one of his novels, around the end of my high school days (1988/89), shortly before I started keeping this list. I think I learned about him from a mention in Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology — which is also where I first read something by Paul — earlier that year.

I don’t recall what Spinrad’s reputation was at that time. I hadn’t heard his name in a bazillion years, but when I saw that he was on the bill with Paul, I was curious as to what he’s been up to. After last night, I’m now curious as to how he’s avoided being beaten to death by angry audiences.

He began by rambling through some unfunny, huckster-riffic spiel about a machine that allows people to program their own dreams. Now, I once described The Triplets of Belleville as “being inside another person’s dreams. Unfortunately, that person is very boring.” But I had no idea how bad it could get.

Spinrad spent the next 40-45 minutes reading us a “G-rated” dream. The ‘dream’ was uninteresting, overlong, rendered in utterly lifeless prose. I’m not making this up: it was about (I think) a crippled girl at a prom, who transforms into a butterfly, a hummingbird, a raven, a condor, some sorta flying bicycle person, a dragon, and sweetJesusItotallylosttrack. It was narrated in the second person, which made it sorta like Bright Lights, Big City, except even less fun and without the cocaine.

I mean, I give myself credit for sticking with it as long as I did. Virtually the entire crowd of two dozen was . . . despondent. We weren’t exactly slack-jawed with disbelief. I mean, sure, that was part of it. But the sheer length of the reading meant that we recovered from the tension that accompanies shock — even the shock of badness — and headed on into stultification. His only bit of dialogue, some rhyming by a wise old black woman, would have been offensive if we were left capable of ire.

The interminability of it all grew to the point at which an older member of the audience with some sorta Parkinsonian tremor actually stopped trembling. We assumed — okay, hoped — he’d just fallen asleep. I looked around to see if anyone was “into” the performance, but we were in the back row and all I saw were slack shoulders, and some heads hanging low. One guy was bouncing his head off the back of the chair in front of him.

We were a million miles from iCity.

But this didn’t stop our intrepid reader, who continued to relate this never-ending mess of prose. At some point in the reading, I sent a text message to Amy’s phone that read, “At least we have each other.” On the way back to the car, she likened the experience to an undergraduate creative writing class, remarking, “Just because you think your dreams are interesting, it doesn’t mean anyone else should have to suffer through them.” I pointed out that I recently blogged about dreaming of eight-dollar bills, but she thought that was funny.

When Spinrad finished/stopped, I didn’t know how to react. To applaud would signal that we knew the reading was over, but it could also give him encouragement and leave him thinking that this inane, boring ramble was somehow good. Most members of the audience began applauding, but even then the nightmare wouldn’t end.

No, the host of the evening, Jim Freund, politely commented on dreams as Spinrad walked away from the podium. This was enough to start the man pontificating about what he’s “trying to do” with this writing, exploring the “nature of dreams” or somesuch. Spinrad rambled on about lucid dreaming for a while, then headed back to the podium and said, “Can I tell a story?”

Amy quietly said, “Um, no. You proved that already.”

It was late by the time Spinrad got done explaining how an editor objected to his use of the second person. “He told me, ‘You can’t write in the second person!'”

I followed Amy’s lead and muttered, “I’m not so sure you can handle the first or third person, either.”

We had to head back to NJ, even though I would’ve liked to spend some more time with Paul & Deb. I suppose now we’ll have to get up there. Might even stay overnight, if it means we can score some of that Timmy’s coffee the next morning.

Anyway, you were a good sport for putting up with this whole darn thing. The lesson is, if you see Norman Spinrad on the bill for a reading, run in the other direction. Or kick him in the nuts.

Oh, and here’s another picture, from Water St.:

I have no idea what these numbers signify

(Note: none of this should imply that older writers are batshit coots who should be avoided. As exhibit A, I offer up one of my first-ever posts, about a mindblowing reading by William Gass at the 92nd St. Y.)

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