So, I'm there. I'm loving David Mitchell. He's funny. He has the audience laughing with him, enjoying all his character voices and guttural throw-up noises and his sweet subtle stutter. Then he did it. He stopped, mid sentence, over a word. A word like snogging. He read it aloud and then giggled a bit and smiled. "Oh! Sorry. That is an English word. What would be the right word here, for you? I need to do an over-the-pond translation." He solicited audience feedback, hearty laughs erupted all around, then inserted the "American word" (in this case, the audience determined that "making out" or "necking" would suffice) into a quick re-reading of the passage, translation successfully communicated. It was charming at first, in an "aw, shucks, isn't he nice tying to make sure we understand him" kind of way. Until he did it again. And again. Read. Stop on a word. Do the little "oh, what is that word in your language" dance. Solicit audience feedback. Begin reading again with insertion of newly learned "American" word. Repeat. Ad infinitum. With words that didn't really warrant such jokey, detailed translation.
He then added another layer of stand-up-comedian-ness. As readers of Black Swan Green know, the book is comprised of 13 Chapters which are not so much chapters but neatly contained short stories. As such, they don't pick up right where the previous one left off. There are gaps in time. Even within the same story there are gaps of at least a few hours. When our Swan Man arrived at the first of these time lapses, he paused and looked up at us. "I've not yet worked out how to signal a gap in time while I'm doing a reading. It is easy to see on the page, but not easy for you to see when I'm reading out loud." He then told us that to denote a gap in time, he would lift his arms up and over to the right of his body, clapping them together. This, he said, would let us know he was moving to the next passage. There are many such time-gap passages in the three or so different sections of BSG he chose to read from, so the right-of-body-hand-clap was invoked frequently. It, too, was funny at first. Charming. Disarming. All those things I wanted Mitchell to be. But. Something felt off.
Imagine, then, regular right-hand body clapping with even more frequent translation stops. Add these elements to the already vocal character voices and slight stuttering and what do you get? I'm not happy to report it dear readers, but it began to feel like a bit of a shtick. And I hated him for it because he didn't need it.
Now. It may partly have been because the words he chose were obvious ones -- no real translation required. Perhaps it was the number of times he did it that annoyed me. But the question that came to me over and over and over again was this -- how many cities had he already done this in? How many words could he truly not know the "translation" to before this reading? Had he no other opportunity to work out his time-gap movements before LA? To be fair, I countered (with my Mitchell-loving self), this might be the first stop on his tour. Perhaps it was possible that this was his first across-the-pond reading of his new material and these sorts of comedic overtures & audience ice-breaking translation & time-gap exercises were warranted. So I did my homework. While we were not the first stop, we were nearish to the beginning of a rather short tour. He had done at least six U.S. readings by the time he got to us. Possibly more. Maybe one less if he cancelled or got sick or had a sore throat and didn't read, right? So, to be fair, he had given at least a few readings before we saw him in LA.
So why the big song and dance? Was he nervous? Did he think his work didn't stand on its own? Was it genuine? Or rather planned out -- and therefore (my biggest fear) -- wholly insincere? I'm not sure, but this series of posts is not called The Swan Show for nothing. It was a show of sorts. While he appeared to be so sincere and warm on the surface, there were moments of almost perfect choreography, as if it were all rather calculated. I could even imagine a scenario in which, I hate to say it, his publicist and/or the marketing arm of Random House coached him on how to be dreamy and endearing and put on, yes, a good show. I vacillated between admiring him for his lovely reading of his work and his endearing stammer and being somewhat dismayed that he believed the calculated comdey would woo his audience. His readers.
But that's the thing. As I've said so many times before, the people that actually bother to attend the readings are often not fans of the writer in the way you would imagine. Many are there to proclaim to themselves and others how brilliant they are, how clever to know about this writer and about this reading. To many, a reading is just another social outing on an already busy calendar. An opportunity to have drinks before and dinner after. Because they are so caught up with their own appearances, they bought the Swan Show. Hook. Line. Sinker.
All these weeks later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. This, dear readers, is why it took me so long to post about Mitchell's reading (sorry Ed)-- not, as you may have suspected, because I was so busy writing prize-winning short stories and plot-mapping out my next novel. Or, as others were bold enough to hint, that I'm hopelessly lazy and/or a procrastinator of the highest degree. I am genuinely torn. I have never been one to think that it is best to admire a writer's work from afar...separating the man from the work and all that. I've also been able, in most cases, to continue loving the work despite the person the writer seems to be after a reading and/or several carefully read interviews. Yet, for some reason, still unknown to me, the idea that Mitchell might be a willing participant in the larger book marketing machine has unsettled me to the core. Which is, after all, the heart of the matter.
I have enjoyed his writing so much that I have committed the cardinal sin of readers admiring writers -- I didn't leave room for him to be human. I raised him up -- all the way up -- on the pedestal. He dances and twirls and pirouettes on the page -- an agility that requires a certain amount of ego and moxy -- no matter who you are. Tossing in a charming accent, an endearing stutter and an overall dashing demeanor doesn't change that. But I wanted it to. Oh how I wanted it to.
There is, however, this: I've read many other blog accounts of his visits in other cities. It seems he read the same passages in every city. While this lends credence to my question of how many times he'd danced the same dance before he got to LA, it also irked me more, because Mitchell made a great show of acting very uncomfortable about his seeming impromptu selection of what passages to read. During the reading, he stopped halfway through the observed-from-a-tree sex scene and proclaimed aloud, "I can't believe I chose to read this section to you. How uncomfortable and embarassing." But. Um. Didn't you read it at all the other venues? What is uncomfortable and embarassing then? And if so, why pretend this is new for you? Yet, for all my frustration, no other account of his readings in other cities makes mention of these tics. I want to believe that's because they didn't occur. Or, perhaps, they were so charmed by all the other elements of the Swan Show, the tics went unnoticed.
It could be me after all, my own cynicism. Maybe the writer in me is jealously taking over where the reader in me (if left to its own devices) would not. If I was just a reader, would I care about all this? Does that fact that I write get in the way? Possibly. Am I just an ass? Giving the guy a hard time when really what more can you expect from a creative genius but to be nervous and a bit jumpy while reading his work in public and so whatever shtick he needs to get him through is fine? Acceptable? Even expected? I'm not sure.
By the time we got to questions & answers, I was ready for a little Mitchell redemption. I got it, in spades. Stay tuned.