:: Article

The In Sound From Way Out

By Kramer Durette.

Prominent write-ups in Time Out, and enthusiastic notices from publications like The Village Voice and Gawker (a website more normally suited to reporting on the color of Lindsay Lohan’s pubic hair, or the latest Britney meltdown) have created something of a buzz about tonight’s reading [September 14th 2007]. It seems that the KGB is becoming something of a home away from home for the so-called “Offbeat Generation”. Tonight’s event is tinged with the air of expectation.

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[From L to R: Tao Lin, Tony O’Neill and Vanessa O’Neill]

The KGB itself is an unassuming bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and has seen a virtual who’s who of literary talent read from its podium. Tonight we have Donari Braxton, Tao Lin and Tony O’Neill — as diverse a bunch of writers as it would seem to be possible within the confines of the same ‘generation’.

The vibe is different from most other literary events. For a start, there is a lot of jostling for position by the crowd who all seem to be eager to find a spot close to the stage. For another, there is almost as much activity in the bathrooms as there is in the main room. By the time I arrive at 7.30 the place is pretty much full, and a few people have already left in disgust because of the crowd and the fact that the event is running behind schedule. Tao Lin is sat alone, studiously avoiding the glances of Bed and Eeee eee eeeee clutching hipsters. When one girl works up the nerve to ask him to draw a picture in her notebook, he graciously responds with a picture of a sad-looking hamster in a high chair with the legend “fucked” written across its forehead. Tony O’Neill arrives with his wife Vanessa, and a pile of poetry books in hand.

The reading is just about to begin when the imposing figure of Donari Braxton makes it to the venue. But this is not what all of the rubbernecking is about. Yoko Ono has also made an appearance, and despite attempts to keep a low profile at the back of the bar, people are whispering and sneaking glances.

Tao Lin reads first. His piece is called “Haley Joel Osment and Dekota Fanning,” and it is delivered in Lin’s characteristic monotone. I have seen Lin read on a number of occasions, and the crowd reaction is usually either complete adoration, or outright hostility. There is no middle ground. His neutral face expression and demeanor (that of a man frozen either by stage fright or existential dread) are of course deliberate: Lin presents his work stripped of all attempts at “performance” or affectation. Like his poems and his prose, Lin’s stage persona is all about the frozen moments in between the ‘big’ moments: boredom, ennui, and awkward pauses. Yet somehow it works. Once you are sucked into his rhythm Lin becomes hypnotic, and you start to notice the carefully constructed prose, the writing free of all pretensions, as hard and polished as a glass-topped table. Hipsters seem to like Tao Lin, but his writing is the antithesis of hipsterism — it is a reflection of our own vacuous society, a mirror held up to the blank face of American culture.

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After Lin finishes, the applause is warm. In Donari Braxton (pictured above), we have a reader who may actually be the exact opposite of Tao Lin. His voice is resonant, and sonorous. This is in perfect keeping with his writing, which is complex, layered and harkens back to another era in writing, an era of long flowing sentences, of dark imagery and allusion. The stories he reads are complex and insanely well crafted. His voice lilts, effects accents, and has the power and control of a Shakespearian actor. The entire audience is spellbound by the performance, and Braxton seems altered, transported by his won performance. “To the Veldt” originally appeared in Scarecrow, and Lee Rourke‘s literary magazine is given a shout out. In my notebook, while trying to describe Braxton, the best I could come up with was: “Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett????” but I don’t think even that comes close.

O’Neill reads from his new book, the poetry collection Songs From the Shooting Gallery. I buy a copy tonight, but I have already read a lot of his work online. All three writers are what you would term “internet writers”, and have the kind of audience that 15 years ago would be hard to imagine without having a major publishing deal. O’Neill’s reading is relaxed and loose, and the room is silent as the crowd strains to pick up every inflection of his English accent. He is funnier than I expected. I’m not sure what I expected having read his stuff, but the writing gives the impression of a very dark, troubled individual. But the black humor in his poems becomes more obvious when you hear him read his own work. He randomly tears into the new collection. “Do you want to hear a poem about shit?” he asks, “Because you know I tackle all the big subjects. Mortality and shit.” The shit poem (“Bathroom Revelation”) has the room alternating laughter and disgusted groans. I wonder if it is the first ever poetic ode to junkie constipation. The poems touch upon love (“Vanessa”), suicide, (“1319 iris Circle Number 3”), fatherhood (“13-10-03”) and of course O’Neill’s obsession and muse, heroin (“A Song From the Shooting Gallery”, “Johnnies Coffee Shop”). He introduces the poem “America, A Love Letter” with the admission “Wilde said that talent borrows and genius steals…. So here is one I stole from Allen Ginsberg.”

Afterwards I got a chance to talk with the three readers for a moment as they signed books for fans. I asked them what they thought of the term “The Offbeat generation” or what it was that even connected them stylistically. The consensus seemed to by that they had little — or nothing — in common when it came to their style. The uniting force — as well as their ages and tremendous talents — was a sense that literature itself was “stuck” at the moment, and needed (as Lin put it) a “new beginning”. All of the writers here are on independents — Lin has a lifelong deal with Melville House (“I intend to publish my shopping list one day” he tells me, deadpan), Braxton’s collection I and his forthcoming Book of Second Childhoods are on Slow Toe, while O’Neill has books out on no less that 4 independents. (He also told me that his new book is coming out next year on St Martins Press, a quirk that will see him sharing a publisher with JG Ballard.)

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As the place started to empty, I noticed Yoko Ono waiting to talk to the readers. I said my goodbyes, and left the readers and Ono talking about Fluxus, the Offbeats and Ono’s album Season Of Glass. Next week, Tom McCarthy will be performing in the city. It’s certainly an exciting time in NYC to be a reader.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kramer Durette is a student at NYU. He lives in Manhattan, and contributes articles and reviews to a bunch of local arts magazines.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 17th, 2007.